As we close 2022, the Yahoo Sports NBA team takes a look back at their favorite basketball things from the year that was — from the NBA All-Star Game to the NBA and WNBA Finals to the NBA draft and more.
The last two years have been rough on everyone. For the NBA, the sport abruptly shut down in March 2020, returned four months later in a bubble, and fans could not even fill the arena at greater than 50% capacity to watch the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks until after their first-round playoff series in June 2021.
For people who suffer from anxiety and depression, uncertainty over our own versions of shutdowns and bubbles during the COVID-19 pandemic made mental health struggles more difficult to overcome. I find clarity comes with presence, whether sipping my coffee, petting my dog or playing with my kids. Focus on the now, and depression over the past and anxiety about the future can melt away, even if just for a time.
So, there I was, vaccinated, boosted and masked this past June, rushing from one media availability to another in the belly of TD Garden after Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals, feeling the pressure of covering the first championship I have witnessed in person, trying to bring up the voice memos app on my phone, when a large swath of people filed into the hallway, forcing me to slow my pace and unfurl my own ball of stress.
And there was Stephen Curry before me, signature champagne goggles in one hand, Finals MVP trophy in the other. I was in lockstep with an all-timer the moment he cemented his legacy, as he held the hardware that had escaped him on three previous title runs, family and friends pouring praise atop the alcohol that soaked his black T-shirt. This is one of the greatest players ever at the pinnacle of his career, and I followed him into the press room, where I got to compose history for the record at Yahoo Sports. I was present, and that says a lot about how far I’ve come — and much we’ve all had to overcome — in the past two years.
Cassandra Negley: The too-lit Las Vegas Aces’ coronation
Kelsey Plum would later admit she was lost and looking for her teammates in Mohegan Sun Arena, a boom box the only thing weighing on her shoulders after the Las Vegas Aces clinched their first WNBA championship. As she exited the visiting locker rooms, where a half-inch of champagne pooled on the plastic-covered floors in part because A’ja Wilson had sprayed incoming media with it, a few of us trailed behind her.
“Plum Dawg” walked with a purpose past the curtained-off area for news conferences — she was definitely lost — and I ducked around it, sliding into a front-row seat to what became my favorite thing of 2022. Welcome the too-lit Las Vegas Aces, featuring none other than champagne-wielding league MVP Wilson and Plum, who did eventually find her friends.
It was a nice bookend to my first WNBA Finals, which began in Las Vegas with a hilariously entertaining conversation with Sydney Colson, Theresa Plaisance and Chelsea Gray, whose side-eye still gives me nightmares (just kidding!). This group knew how to have fun, but could just as easily flip the switch and stomp on opponents’ necks. It’s everything the WNBA needs.
They were truly the belles of the ball and the class clowns all wrapped up into one, and credit to Becky Hammon for allowing them to balance both. Don’t let her fool you, she’s just as fun. Simply thinking of the Aces’ plane ride home and a parade that closed the Las Vegas strip will always be worthy of four shots in celebration. No thanks on the Four Loko, though.
Watching Wilson win her first title — and catching Gray telling Wilson in mom tones to stop drinking — were a nice final page of women’s basketball in 2022. Because who could forget Wilson serving as a Kris Jenner-level videographer for her South Carolina head coach, Dawn Staley, carrying the program’s second NCAA championship trophy.
Certainly not me. If you’ll excuse me, I’m ready to ring in 2023 Plum Dawg style. Woof, woof.
If you thought NBA petty ended with “The Last Dance,” you were mistaken. Good, old-fashioned beef is still alive, or if not beef, pettiness.
Even the days of being back in the locker room, where context is so important beyond the quotes, is critical to coverage. And seeing some of the raw emotion is a welcome sight to bring to fans.
But back to the petty.
Pettiness opens the door to rivalries, which are sorely missing in today’s NBA. Perhaps it’s free agency and lack of roster continuity, or maybe even the league’s culture in making it through the pandemic, it seemed like the petty meter dropped significantly. Now, it seems to be back on track.
Zion Williamson giving the surly Phoenix Suns something they can feel with a 360 dunk with seconds remaining and a win assured seemed to start things back up, then Devin Booker followed it up nights later by attempting a meaningless triple from 30 feet at the buzzer, with 58 points already on the stat sheet, felt like normal.
Of course, it sort of began in the playoffs when Draymond Green and Steph Curry were dancing and bopping around to Three 6 Mafia’s “Whoop That Trick” in Game 5 of the West semis in Memphis. But a little competitive discomfort or borderline immaturity never hurt anybody.
It’s supposed to be entertaining, so welcome the competition, the disdain — and the silly, the petty. It’s good for the soul.
This wasn’t Ja Morant’s first time in the postseason. He’d lost in the play-in game in the bubble, and won the play-in tournament to earn the eighth seed the year after. It was his first time as a playoff favorite, though, after spending the previous six months styling and profiling, hitting the Griddy, soaring and talking David Mamet monologues’ worth of smack to anyone within earshot.
That was his right; it comes with the territory when you blossom into an All-Star starter, All-NBA selection and tip of the spear for a 56-win monster. On this night, though, Morant was knotted up at two games apiece in the opening round of the playoffs, in the proverbial Pivotal Game 5™, and his Grizzlies were losing — down 13 in the closing seconds of the third quarter to a Minnesota team that had already scored one win in Memphis and was sitting just a quarter away from putting the Grizz on the brink of a brutally early exit.
The Wolves smelled blood, and the hometown faithful were getting restless. It wasn’t quiet in the stands, exactly; it was all nervous murmuring, the sound of 17,794 people hoping against hope that the chariot they rode to the arena hadn’t just turned into a pumpkin. All of them were looking at Ja, waiting to see what he’d do to fix it.
And Ja did that.
Reject the screen, take two dribbles and hit the dotted line. See Malik Beasley slide into position to take the charge, reject the fact of his existence and push the B button. Cuff it, cock that thing back and drop the hammer, answering an entire fan base’s prayers by sending Beasley straight to the seventh circle of Hell.
Morant did that, and it completely changed both the temperature inside FedExForum and the tenor of Game 5. He’d score 20 points in the final 12:05 of game time, including the game-winner; the Grizzlies would go back to the Twin Cities, eliminate the Wolves in six and advance to Round 2 for the first time in seven seasons.
It’s not easy to encapsulate what makes a player like Ja Morant so special, but that moment comes close. The willingness to try something audacious — partly because, practically, his team needs it, and partly because, spiritually, we all need it. The capacity to transform those audacious imaginings not only into jaw-dropping realities, but into something beautiful — an expression of will and interpretation of the game as aesthetically pleasing as any player in any sport.
The sheer, guttural, instantaneous cacophony he evokes in a moment like this; the odd and singular sound of tens of thousands of people gasping and screaming at the same time. The sound of the unbelievable, making you believe. It’s why we watch. And it’s why, when a player like Morant comes along, we can’t take our eyes off him.
February’s All-Star weekend quickly turned into LeBron James’ All-Star weekend. The appeal of James returning to Cleveland, as the Cavaliers threatened to make their first postseason appearance without him, was obvious intrigue alone. But then the four-time MVP used that Saturday’s media session to openly flirt with returning to the Cavs and set the stage for his desire to team with his oldest son, Bronny, should their careers overlap in the NBA in the near future.
Cleveland boasted two All-Star selections in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, and to this day, the key piece clearly missing from this Cavs rebuild is a two-way wing who can consistently uplift Garland, Allen, Evan Mobley and now Donovan Mitchell. With James known for the intentionality of his public musings, league personnel certainly viewed James’ comments as an olive branch for a potential exit ramp from Los Angeles, or at least a search for legitimate leverage entering extension conversations with the Lakers — even though he ultimately re-signed for two years and $97.1 million over the summer.
The murmurings swirled around Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse like the winds howling throughout downtown all weekend. And they didn’t stop at James’ playing career. Following an agency-wide dinner for Klutch clients and family members, word quickly spread of his specific interest in owning an expansion team in Las Vegas, which many league figures consider to be a foregone conclusion despite the NBA’s obvious overtures to build footing in Mexico City and the intrigue in returning to Seattle.
And for the cherry on top, while it was Stephen Curry who couldn’t miss from distance and claimed MVP honors, it was James who isolated Zach LaVine on the right elbow, backed down his defender with two dribbles and lofted a game-winning moonball to reach the exhibition’s final “target score,” as per the new Elam Ending format. Quite the 48-hour display of how the NBA ecosystem has orbited James for the better part of two decades, and still very much spins at his axis.
Krysten Peek: The mystery around the 2022 NBA draft’s No. 1 pick
There are some NBA drafts where fans and NBA executives know who the No. 1 overall pick is going to be well ahead of the draft in June. In 2019, it was Zion Williamson. This upcoming year, it will be Victor Wembanyama. For the 2022 NBA draft, there were three options at the top: Jabari Smith Jr., Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren. Numerous publications (including Yahoo Sports) had Smith going No. 1 to the Orlando Magic. The Magic were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league and Smith was the best-shooting big in the draft.
The Monday before the draft, things started to get interesting. The Vegas moneyline made a drastic jump in favor of Banchero. Banchero’s odds to be drafted No. 1 shifted from +900 to +200 on BetMGM in just 24 hours. Some believed the Houston Rockets were trying to trade up for Banchero and no one, not even Banchero nor his agent Mike Miller, could explain the jump when asked by Yahoo Sports.
Smith still felt confident going into Thursday night, telling Yahoo Sports at the time, “I’ll be surprised if I’m not taken No. 1.” His head coach at Auburn, Bruce Pearl, also double-downed on Smith going No. 1, telling Yahoo Sports, “What makes him No. 1? For his size, he’s the best jump shooter I’ve seen in college in over 20 years. He’s about as ready, as far as a one-and-done, than I’ve ever seen and he is going to make Orlando win.”
Just hours before the draft on Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted:
When the Magic were on the clock for the first pick, many still thought it was going to be Smith who would hear his name called first. Thirty seconds before commissioner Adam Silver hit the stage, Miller received a phone call, sitting next to Banchero and his family in the green room. Banchero later told Yahoo Sports his heart was racing and his palms were sweating. “My agent just kind of looked at me and was like, ‘Man, congratulations,’ and I was just like, ‘Whoa,’ and by the time I even realized what he said, my name was about to be called.”
The night for Smith was a little more somber, proving that nothing is ever a sure thing on draft night. “It is what it is,” Smith told Yahoo Sports after being drafted by the Rockets with the third overall pick. “I will go in with that chip on my shoulder just ready to prove myself to everybody.”
Both rookies are off to hot starts. Banchero is leading all rookies in points (averaging 21.9 per game), minutes played and field goals in his first season with the Magic. Smith is second in 3-point field goals made (59) and rebounds, averaging 7.1 so far this season. The pair recently went head-to-head on Dec. 21 with Banchero having the stronger showing, posting 23 points and 13 rebounds in 32 minutes to Smith’s 10 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes.