By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – LeBron James cementing his status as one of the all-time best players, another devastating injury to Derrick Rose and a once-unthinkable power shift in Los Angeles all occurred during basketball’s memorable 2013.
The year also will be remembered for a series of “lasts” for outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern and a Canadian making history as the top pick in the NBA Draft.
After facing loads of criticism for past playoff failures, James inched his way up the list of all-time greats by leading the Miami Heat to a second consecutive NBA championship in June and putting his team on the verge of becoming a dynasty.
While not always at his best in the 2013 playoffs, James raised his game when it mattered most, scoring a game-high 37 points and adding 12 rebounds in a championship-clinching victory over the San Antonio Spurs in the decisive seventh game of the NBA Finals.
“For me, I can’t worry about what everybody says about me. I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here,” James, a two-time Finals MVP, said after the victory. “That’s enough.
“Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a No. 6 with James on the back. I’m blessed. So what everybody say about me off the court don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.”
For Stern, 2013 was a victory lap of sorts after having previously announced his decision to step down as the longest-tenured commissioner in professional sports.
Stern, 71, will retire in February after 30 years on the job, a period during which he oversaw strong revenue growth, expansion to 30 teams from 23, a movement into small markets like Oklahoma City and Memphis and helped grow the game on a global basis.
One week after the 2012-13 NBA season ended, the Cleveland Cavaliers used the top pick in the draft to select Toronto native Anthony Bennett, making him the first Canadian player taken first overall.
Bennett, touted as a big-bodied rebound specialist who played one season for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, became the seventh player born outside the United States taken with the top pick but the first from a country better known for producing elite ice hockey players.
“Yeah. It’s just crazy. Made history. I can’t really complain about that,” Bennett said after being the surprise top pick. “It’s just like a long time dream that I had since I first started playing basketball, even though it was six or seven years ago. It’s just crazy.”
For Chicago Bulls point guard Rose, the year ended the same way it began, with him on the sidelines because of an injury that has robbed the 25-year-old of another season in his prime.
Rose, who missed all of the 2012-13 season recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, was injured 11 games into the current 82-game campaign before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the medial meniscus in his right knee.
The injury was a devastating blow to a Bulls team that was considered a contender for the Eastern Conference crown with Rose rejoining a team that reached the conference semi-finals last season without him.
In Los Angeles, the spotlight that was usually reserved for Kobe Bryant and the 16-time NBA champion Lakers has since been shifted to the rival Clippers, who opened the season with lofty goals given the championship pedigree of former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers at the helm.
Rivers, one of only four active coaches to win an NBA title, was acquired from the Celtics in June and is looking to bring the rejuvenated Clippers franchise its first championship.
The Lakers, long the preferred destination for top players seeking an NBA title, found themselves in unfamiliar territory having to battle for a playoff spot and then getting swept out of the first round of the postseason.
The offseason was no kinder to the Lakers as Dwight Howard spurned the team after one season to join the Houston Rockets, joining forces with James Harden on a team that made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009.
“It means a lot to me just to have a fresh start and have an opportunity to write my own story,” Howard said about his decision to leave the Lakers for the Rockets.
“I don’t think people understood the fact that I got traded to L.A., and now I had a chance to really choose my own destiny, and this is the place where I chose and I’m happy about it.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry)