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Biggest stars and storylines of 2014

From LeBron going back to Cleveland to Donald Sterling being ousted from the league, it's been an eventful year in the NBA, to say the least. Our 5-on-5 crew chimes in on some of the biggest stars, surprises and storylines of 2014.


1. Who was the best player of 2014?

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Hmm. This needs to be a player who won at least one playoff series in 2014 and is off to a strong start in the current season. I'm going with Damian Lillard, who provided that thrilling finish to the Blazers-Rockets series and has Portland among the West's best teams at the moment. Bonus points for his 2014 All-Star pentathlon, when he participated in five events and won the skills challenge.

Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: LeBron James. This was a tough one. Anthony Davis missed a bunch of games early in the calendar year (and didn't make the playoffs) and Kevin Durant missed a bunch of games late this calendar year. So this is the last year we'll give LeBron this benefit of the doubt.

Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: LeBron James. He may not have won MVP for the regular season, but he led the NBA in points and WARP with the calendar marked 2014. Were it not for a faulty bone in Kevin Durant's foot, we'd be crowning him as the champion of 2014. But I'm sorry, KD, LeBron is the real MVP of 2014.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Tim Duncan. I'm obviously grading on an age-based curve, but what he did at 38 to turn back the clock and help drag San Antonio off the mat after what happened in the 2013 NBA Finals gets my vote. He was a rock for the Spurs, physically and emotionally, to lead them through the Western Conference minefield en route to one of the most dazzling Finals displays we've ever seen from a team. Even in this LeBron-KD-Brow universe, Duncan's work in 2014 is what I'll remember most in terms of what happened on the court.

Royce Young, ESPN.com: Kevin Durant. The last quarter of the year hasn't gone his way, with a stress fracture in his foot and then a sprained ankle keeping him out of all but nine games this season. But his run from January into late May was good enough to trump all of that. Just take his January alone when he averaged 36-6-6. No, Durant didn't win an NBA title, but he had plenty of signature postseason moments, and there's no shame in falling to a historically great Spurs team in six games.


2. Who was the breakout player of 2014?

Adande: Anthony Davis. It's hard to call a No. 1 overall draft pick a breakout player, but how else are we supposed to categorize someone who used the first third of this season to stretch the statistical boundaries of the game and is on pace to produce the highest player efficiency rating of all time. Or you could go with the evidence that his play has produced a recurring blog entry known as the Anthony Davis Alert.

Elhassan: Anthony Davis. All due respect to Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Goran Dragic and other players who blossomed in 2014, Davis has finally seen his arrival as a bona fide NBA superstar.

Haberstroh: Anthony Davis. He dominated FIBA competition this past summer en route to gold for Team USA and has launched himself into the 2014-15 MVP discussion while averaging 22.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and a league-leading 5.7 are-you-freakin-kidding-me's per game.

Stein: Kawhi Leonard. You could certainly make a case for Anthony Davis or Klay Thompson, especially after their contributions to Team USA's gold-medal run at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, but Leonard did as much as Duncan in the Miami series to become the most unlikely Finals MVP since Cedric Maxwell back in 1981.

Young: Anthony Davis. He's gone from being a rare talent with monster potential to actually realizing that potential, at the age of 21. Davis put up sizable numbers down the stretch of last season, served notice on the international stage in the World Cup and has built on that momentum, and then some, with his outrageous first two months this season.


3. What was the most memorable moment of 2014?

Adande: If by memorable you mean meme-able, then it has to be Lance Stephenson blowing in LeBron James' ear, which also produced one of the best bits at the ESPYs. And when Kevin Garnett went into Stephenson mode last week it caused David West to say, "I think Lance's was a little more sensual, you know? [KG's] was an aggressive one." When players are distinguishing between ear blows, that's the NBA at its absurd best.

Elhassan: LeBron's announcement that he'd return to Cleveland. I never really took that possibility seriously and thought all along he was a lock to return to Miami.

Haberstroh: The "LeBron: 'I'm coming home'" tweet from @SI_Lee Jenkins. I'll never forget where I was when I saw it pop up in my Twitter scroll. The B terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, sitting at my gate waiting to board for Las Vegas while wiping my hands off from fried chicken. If there was an "I'll always remember where I was" moment of 2014 in the NBA, that was it for me.

Stein: Had the privilege of being on the "SportsCenter" set when LeBron's going-home Sports Illustrated essay went live, and likewise had the privilege of being in the audience for Kevin Durant's MVP speech. Both unforgettable.

Young: Spurs win their fifth championship. To see Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker celebrating together again, with an approving Gregg Popovich standing in the back of the stage remains the lasting image of 2014. A dynasty built over time on the back of patience and process, with championships spanning three decades.


4. Who or what was the biggest surprise of 2014?

Adande: Jimmy Butler. The Bulls have to be the most surprised of all. Do you think they would have spent that time wooing Carmelo Anthony over the summer if they had known they had a player who could score more efficiently and consistently on their roster already -- with a salary that's $20 million cheaper than the going rate for Carmelo this season?

Elhassan: The leaked "Luol Deng has a little African in him" memo shocked me. Donald Sterling's racism had long been public knowledge within NBA circles, but the fact that someone could write (and then someone else could casually repeat) such a negatively intended description of one of the NBA's most respected citizens floored me. The fact that it was racially tinged just added insult to injury. Of course, Deng showed his character by replying, "I actually have a lot of African in me."

Haberstroh: Forget James turning his back on four straight Finals appearances. It's the Phoenix Suns almost winning 50 games last season. Everyone and their cousin thought the Suns were going in the tank last season. I mean, sportsbooks in Vegas tabbed them for 21 wins. But they ended up winning 48 and making everyone look like morons. The biggest surprise about it, though? That wasn't enough to make the playoffs.

Stein: Adam Silver. Not sure surprise is the right word, but the rookie commish had numerous curveballs and fastballs thrown at him after succeeding David Stern on Feb. 1 and established rather quickly that, stylistic differences aside, he's got a commish hammer of his own that he's not afraid to use.

Young: LeBron leaving Miami and abandoning Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade was a stunning moment, especially after the stars seemed to be aligning with the Miami triad opting out of their contracts, which was supposed to set the stage for a blockbuster free-agency retooling.


5. Which storyline made the biggest impact in 2014?

Adande: The Donald Sterling saga. Finally ridding the NBA of the scourge of Sterling might have been the least significant aspect of this storyline. It provided a defining moment early in Adam Silver's tenure, as he gave a decisive response that was widely praised and won him credits with the players. The sale of the Clippers for $2 billion provided a new price point for sports franchises. And the fallout extended to Atlanta, where racially insensitive remarks shook up the Hawks' ownership and front office, a reminder that everybody is accountable for their words in the post-Sterling era.

Elhassan: Bigger social responsibility among the players. From the Sterling scandal to the Luol Deng memo to speaking out about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, NBA players let their voices be heard against injustice and broke the standard of political correctness for the sake of marketability that had been set by previous generations. In particular, players like David West, Deng and Derrick Rose all deserve recognition.

Haberstroh: The Donald Sterling debacle. This wasn't just an NBA story but an American workplace story that probably reached more living rooms around the world than any story that happened on the court. Though the actual incident happened in 2014, the fallout from the ugly situation will extend far beyond. Sterling may be gone, but his story won't be forgotten in the collective bargaining discussions in 2017.

Stein: Donald Sterling's exit. What happened to Paul George is up there, but the Sterling saga is a big part of the Silver story and, for someone who broke into NBA coverage as a Clippers beat writer many years ago, it's still surreal to try to process that Sterling was finally forced out after all his vows to never, ever sell. Or even budge.

Young: Donald Sterling. For months, the state of an entire franchise hung in the balance. Not only was a new precedent set, but Adam Silver established his presence as commissioner swiftly and strongly. Oh, and an NBA franchise sold for $2 billion, which is something.