1. High Five: Memorable Decade's Highlights
A new decade begins Friday in the NBA with three games on the schedule, four of this season's presumed title contenders bunched up but generally living up to billing and one last look back at the decade we just departed.
To cap a series of retrospectives that began with a 10-question SportsNation quiz, followed by submissions from John Hollinger and Chad Ford that covered many of the decade's bests and worsts on the floor and on draft day, here are the hoops memories -- good and bad -- from Jan. 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2009, that stand out most for your humble Weekend Dime correspondent.
Five good memories, for starters, followed by five not-so-pleasant episodes in Box 6 after which we resolve to refocus fully on the Cavaliers-Celtics-Lakers-Magic jumble at the top of the league and a busy 2010 calendar (when you look ahead to free agency and labor negotiations in the summer) that could tell us a lot about the next 10 years.
1. THE 2006 POSTSEASON
You had a record-tying 18 games decided by two points or fewer.
You had 10 games that went to overtime to set a record.
You had four Game 7s to fall one short of the record.
You had Phoenix coming back from a 3-1 deficit to stun Kobe Bryant's Lakers.
You had LeBron James in the playoffs for the first time to torture the Wizards by leading Cleveland to three one-point games in a six-game series.
You had San Antonio losing a Game 7 on its home floor when the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks went up by 20, squandered all of that lead (having already blown a 3-1 series lead) and eventually pulled away in overtime after Nowitzki's 3-point play, with a big assist from Manu Ginobili's unconscionable foul on a driving Dirk at the end of regulation.
You had Miami climbing out of a 2-0 hole in the NBA Finals to beat Dallas in six games in the greatest Finals comeback of all time, with the Mavs seemingly on the verge of a sweep thanks to a 13-point lead with less than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and then unraveling.
Add it all up, and what did you have?
The greatest postseason of my adult life especially considering what was to come in 2007 with the Phoenix suspensions against San Antonio, followed by the Spurs' sweep of Cleveland in the lowest-rated NBA Finals in history, followed by the Tim Donaghy revelations in July.
2. THE BIG SHOT ROB COLLECTION
Ask yourself this question: What's the most memorable single play from the 2000s?
My instinctive answer: Chances are Robert Horry was on the floor for it.
This YouTube compilation of Horry's greatest playoff hits includes multiple game winners and game clinchers that should stir your memory. Eighty percent of the footage is from the decade we just concluded, cementing Horry's place on this scorecard as the greatest role player of all time.
A deep and thoughtful rewind of the past 10 years will turn up plenty of alternatives to consider in the most memorable play of the decade derby. Here are five other plays that, at least to me, were as unforgettable as Allen Iverson's infamous rant about prac-tisss in 2002:
• Derek Fisher's .4-second turnaround jumper that floored the Spurs in 2004.
• Kobe Bryant's overtime buzzer-beater from the elbow out of a midcourt jump ball to put the Suns in that 3-1 hole in 2006.
• Dirk Nowitzki's drive and free throw to force overtime in that Game 7 in San Antonio in '06.
• Tim Duncan's 3-pointer from the right wing that forced a second overtime against Phoenix in 2008 and triggered the breakup of the Suns as we knew them for much of the decade.
Horry was so consistently clutch that he sank two shots that could legitimately trump all of the above, since both saved teams that went on to win the championship. There was Horry's 3-pointer in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals in Detroit that nudged San Antonio into a decisive 3-2 series lead. And there was Horry's triple at the buzzer from the top of the arc in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, which still ranks as the clutchest shot I've seen in person.
Big Shot Rob's biggest dagger capped a comeback from 24 points down in a series matching the two best teams in the league. If Horry had missed it, remember, Sacramento would have taken a 3-1 series lead back home for Game 5 and almost certainly would have prevented the Lakers from three-peating.
3. EIGHTY-ONE FOR NO. 8
I've heard every case made to try to downplay this achievement.
It was just a game in January with nothing at stake.
It was only the Raptors.
It was Kobe at his ball-hogging worst.
Nearly four years later, I don't know who would buy any of that.
Back before he switched to No. 24 and roughly two years before the Memphis Grizzlies gift wrapped Pau Gasol for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant uncorked 81 points against Toronto on Jan. 22, 2006. Eighty-one points in 42 minutes! Which has to rank as the greatest individual performance we've seen.
It has to be the greatest because (A) there is no footage of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962 for us to present as a counter and (B) even Chamberlain himself is quoted on the Basketball Hall of Fame's Web site describing the fourth quarter of that game as "a farce" because of the Philadelphia Warriors' incessant fouling to keep getting the ball back.
The Lakers trailed the Raps by 18 points in the second half before Bryant, with 51 of his 81 points coming after the Raps had moved out to a 71-53 lead, single-handedly resurrected them. Take a long look at the box-score numbers. I think even Cavs fans -- even LeBron James -- eventually will back the recent Weekend Dime declaration that not even James' 25 consecutive points against Detroit on a far more meaningful stage (Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals) can match the degree of difficulty.
Shaquille O'Neal has been traded three times since July 2004, starting with his original move from Lakerland to Miami after the '04 Finals in the biggest trade involving a big man since the early 1980s deals that landed Robert Parish and Moses Malone with Boston and Philadelphia, respectively or maybe even going back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's move from Milwaukee to L.A. in 1975.
Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson were traded twice during the past decade.
Rasheed Wallace (2004) and Kevin Garnett (2007) headlined trades that led to the next available championship, although KG's arrival in Boston was part of a two-step Celtics overhaul that began with the acquisition of Ray Allen.
Shaq, Jason Kidd and Pau Gasol, meanwhile, all were traded within a dizzying 20-day span in 2008 that eventually led to a championship on the second attempt for Gasol's new team in L.A.
All of those blockbusters contributed to the growth of a huge sport-within-the-sport in the new millennium. Many modern fans, as noted here previously, care as much (or more) about the NBA transaction game as the actual games on the floor.
Count us on that list, too.
It's an irresistible habit, fueled by the rise of available-to-the-public tools that didn't exist before: ESPN.com's NBA Trade Machine, HoopsHype.com's daily Rumors page and Larry Coon's invaluable NBA Salary Cap FAQ. And I have no plans to apologize.
These are happy days if you, like me, love trades, and all the speculation and anticipation that go with them.
5. THE 2003 DRAFT
You probably know by now that I like to leave the draft evaluations to the true draftniks like our man Chad Ford.
The Class of 2003, though, was the sort of landscape changer that will be talked about well into the next decade, starting with the long-anticipated summer of 2010 free-agent bonanza.
It also is the draft that delivered the biggest bust of the decade -- No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic, whom I frankly liked as much as Ford and the Pistons at the time -- and three more All-Stars from outside the lottery: No. 18 David West, No. 29 Josh Howard and No. 47 Mo Williams.
Yet it's the timing of when this group arrived, more than anything, that makes it so historic.
You'll recall that the final few months of the 2002-03 season were Michael Jordan's last as an NBA player. The final magical act of MJ's career -- his fadeaway baseline jumper in overtime that didn't quite win the '03 All-Star Game in Atlanta but nonetheless demands inclusion on his all-time highlight reel -- soon was followed by his swift and icy ouster by late Wizards owner Abe Pollin. Assuming he would be allowed to return to Washington's front office after a two-season comeback that didn't get the Wiz into the playoffs but sure didn't hurt Pollin's bottom line, Jordan was stunned to learn in early May 2003 that he was being dumped for the first time in his adult life.
But draft day, some six weeks later, pumped the whole league with lots of fascinating new blood, which would prove invaluable as the NBA -- for the second time -- had to face the unwelcome challenge of trying to move out from under MJ's considerable postretirement shadow.
The consensus expectation now is that the upper crust of '03 draftees will be casting their own shadows when we look back 10 or so years from now. It's already happening in Detroit, where the Pistons have been forced to wonder how much different their long-term outlook would be -- even after winning a championship in 2004 thanks to the flurry of slick Joe Dumars moves detailed here by Professor Hollinger -- had they drafted Melo or Bosh instead of Milicic.
2. One-On-One To Five
Q: How do you jump from where you were as a rebounder to where you are now? What's your secret?
A: I just try, each year I come back, to be better at something. When I came in this year, the coaches were harassing me about rebounding. They want the 3s and 4s to go to the board every time offensively, and on defense, they want all five guys to go to the board.
I had [games of] 18 and 20 [rebounds] in the beginning of the season, and it felt great. It was something that I felt good about, something I felt like I could do on a regular basis. All it takes is a little effort. That's all rebound is. A little effort.
Q: Your size [6-foot-7, 220 pounds] isn't a disadvantage?
Q: Have you been sneaking a peek at the league leaders to see where you are in the rebounding race?
A: Yeah. I think so. [Laughs.]
Q: I know you guys have struggled on the road, but is this the Bobcats' best chance to finally make the playoffs now that you've brought [Stephen Jackson] in?
A: Hell, yeah. This is the best opportunity we've had. We've got a great opportunity to do some good things. You name it, [Jackson has] done it. Offensively, defensively, [being] vocal. You name it, he's done it. He's turned this team around.
Q: Are you getting impatient about getting to the playoffs with this team?
A: No because you've got to understand where we came from. This is the only sixth year of the franchise. We've had three different coaches, something like 130 players in a Bobcats uniform. I think this is the first time we've had a consistent coach on a high level and consistent players on a high level.
(Footnote No. 1: Wallace has increased his rebounding average from 7.8 boards per game last season to 12.1 boards per game this season entering Saturday's trip to Miami. That puts him on pace to record the second-largest rebounding increase on a season-to-season basis for players who averaged at least 35 minutes in both seasons since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77. Only Truck Robinson, who went from 10.8 rebounds per game with Washington and Atlanta in 1976-77 to 15.7 rpg with New Orleans in 1977-78 can top Wallace's rise.)
(Footnote No. 2: The slender Wallace might be the Lamar Odom of the East in terms of candy consumption, according to Jackson. During the interview, Jackson chimed in from a nearby locker to say that sweets are the secret fuel behind Wallace's emergence as an elite board man. "All that damn candy he eats," Jackson said. "He's as hyper as hell out there.")
(Footnote No. 3: ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher takes a look here at some of the factors that have contributed to Wallace's rebounding spike.)
3. Hornets Feeling Financial Pinch
The big-picture takeaway from all of Tuesday's drama surrounding a seemingly minor deal is that it's yet another example of the pressure -- some would say desperation -- New Orleans is feeling to get its payroll beneath the $69.9 million luxury-tax threshold.
The wing positions have been major trouble spots for the Hornets all season, but Devin Brown entered Tuesday's play averaging 10.0 points in just 23.4 minutes per game while shooting a solid 41.1 percent from 3-point range.
Yet the Hornets are currently $3.3 million over the tax line and remain prepared to send away Brown in a deal that brings back no guaranteed money, as seen over the summer when New Orleans felt it had to essentially donate Rasual Butler to the Los Angeles Clippers because of the tax benefits.
There is a belief among some rival executives -- or perhaps it's more accurate to call it a hope -- that the Hornets will not be able to resist moving All-Star forward David West before the Feb. 18 trading deadline to ensure that they get comfortably under the tax threshold.
New Orleans' preference would obviously be moving out player(s) from its list of veterans with contracts that stretch beyond this season. That list presumably includes Emeka Okafor, Peja Stojakovic, James Posey, Mo Peterson, Darius Songaila and Julian Wright.
But a major shakeup with the Hornets would appear highly unlikely without involving West, since we know (as covered in this cyberspace last week) that they're not trading Chris Paul.
• For the full Stein blog entry, click here.
4. For Your Calendars
There are a handful of key dates every season for player movement in the NBA and two of them come early in the new year. Teams can start signing players to 10-day contracts on Tuesday, while players possessing non-guaranteed contracts will see those contracts become guaranteed if they survive with their current teams through Jan. 10.
The latter stipulation, though, means that the following 20 players -- including a certain Allen Iverson in Philly -- actually only have to make it through Wednesday, which is the last day teams can release players with non-guaranteed deals in time for them to clear waivers.
That's because the 48-hour waiver period has been moved up from Jan. 8 to Jan. 6 this season because Jan. 10 falls on a Sunday, which is a non-business day in the NBA.Othello Hunter (Atlanta) $736,420
Stephen Graham (Charlotte) $884,881
Darnell Jackson (Cleveland) $736,420
Coby Karl (Cleveland) $736,420
Jawad Williams (Cleveland) $736,420
Joey Graham (Denver) $884,881
Chucky Atkins (Detroit) $1,306,455
Chris Hunter (Golden State) $632,455
Mike Harris (Houston) $489,503
Carlos Arroyo (Miami) $1,107,572
Jonathan Bender (New York) $801,361
Marcus Landry (New York) $457,588
Allen Iverson (Philadelphia) $1,022,109
Jarron Collins (Phoenix) $1,181,803
Patrick Mills (Portland) $457,588
Shavlik Randolph (Portland) $551,749
Ime Udoka (Sacramento) $984,714 $825,497
Pops Mensah-Bonsu (Toronto) $825,497
Wesley Matthews (Utah) $457,588
Earl Boykins (Washington) $1,191,180
Dominic McGuire (Washington) $825,497
There are five other players with partially guaranteed contracts that become fully guaranteed this month: Drew Gooden (Dallas), $1.9 million of his $4.5 million salary was guaranteed coming into the season. Anthony Morrow (Golden State), $300,000 of his $736,420 salary was guaranteed coming into the season. A.J. Price (Indiana), $300,000 of his $457,588 salary was guaranteed coming into the season. Marcus Williams (Memphis), $500,000 of his $855,189 salary was guaranteed coming into the season. Taylor Griffin (Phoenix), $250,000 of his $457,588 salary was guaranteed coming into the season.
Four players with non-guaranteed contracts have already been waived this season: Miami's Shavlik Randolph, Oklahoma City's Mike Wilks, Phoenix's Jason Hart and Portland's Anthony Tolliver. Randolph was then signed by the Blazers on Dec. 30; Hart was released by the Suns after they acquired him Tuesday from Minnesota in a trade for Alando Tucker, cash and a conditional future second-round draft pick.
Kareem Rush of the Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, also had a non-guaranteed contract coming into the season, but the season-ending knee injury he suffered in early mid-November means Rush will receive his full $1,107,572 salary even if the Clips decide they need his roster spot and elect to waive him.
Four other players had partially guaranteed deals that, as stipulated in their contracts, became fully guaranteed in December: Boston's Lester Hudson ($150,000 of his $457,588 salary was guaranteed); Cleveland's Danny Green ($140,000 of his $457,588 salary was guaranteed); Indiana's Luther Head ($250,000 of his $884,861 salary was guaranteed); and San Antonio's Malik Hairston ($50,000 of his $736,420 salary was guaranteed).
5. Marc's Quote
Since that chat, though, West has posted four double-doubles in New Orleans' past six games, including a 44-point, 12-rebound eruption Tuesday in a narrow loss at Houston.
The upturn, if it continues, figures to only increase external trade interest in West, although multiple NBA front-office sources said this week that the Hornets have not shown a clear willingness to make the All-Star forward available. Many rival teams expect West to become available before the Feb. 18 deadline, as noted above in Box 3, but New Orleans has thus far focused on trying to move lower-salaried players such as Devin Brown and Julian Wright.
Five unhappy memories from the decade in question:
1. THE TIM DONAGHY SCANDAL
David Stern admitted from the beginning that the July 2007 discovery that Donaghy -- one of the league's more respected veteran referees -- was being investigated by the FBI for betting on games he officiated was the worst thing that ever happened to the commissioner and this league. Worse than entry No. 2 on this list, as bad as that was, because Donaghy's crimes tarnished the integrity of the sport.
And it's not over. Not even close.
Not when Donaghy has a new book out accusing the league of fostering a refereeing culture that favors certain players and teams and enabled him to win bets at a rate well above the gambling norm. Not when the NBA still can't conclusively convince its audience that Donaghy was a "rogue, isolated criminal," as Stern unforgettably described the ref at his first Donaghy news conference.
Although Donaghy has yet to provide much firm evidence of the culture he alleges by naming names of the league officials who supposedly wanted those players and teams to be favored -- or a certifiable list of the games he wagered on so we can see how many of those were games he refereed himself and how many bets were won relying on the culture -- it would appear the burden of proof remains on the NBA to convince the skeptics nationwide that Donaghy has embellished his story to sell books. Such is the league's plight; with the public's generally dim view of refereeing, the convicted felon, Donaghy, is seen in some corners as more credible and honest about the profession than anyone Stern could trot out to respond. Equally worrying is how little we've heard from the league in response to Donaghy's recent media blitz.
Yet for as often as we've lamented the fact that so many sports fans want to believe Donaghy -- because no professional team sport in America is subjected to skepticism and accusation about its officiating like the NBA -- it's also true Donaghy's demise hasn't inflicted the sort of death blow to the league that was widely anticipated when news of the scandal broke. Far from it, actually.
Almost every time big Donaghy news broke over the past two years, something happened to knock the disgraced former ref out of the spotlight (as seen in recent weeks, when his book tour was obscured by Tiger Woods' unraveling personal life) or NBA fans simply chose to stay focused on the game. One of the many twists to this complex, ongoing saga is that fan interest in the 2007-08 season after Donaghy's schemes were exposed grew substantially by almost any measure. This season's drop in ticket revenue is universally attributed to the economic downturn as opposed to any Donaghy effect. Apart from some damaging headlines during the long-awaited NBA Finals rematch of the Lakers and Celtics in 2008, there has not been a spate of Donaghy-related crises for the league to contend with over the past 30 months.
This, though, is the one NBA nightmare of the 2000s certain to carry into the next decade. So it dwarfs everything else on this list.
2. THE MALICE OF AUBURN HILLS
In terms of in-game scandals, this was the NBA's doomsday scenario: Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers reacted violently to being hit with a cup thrown by a fan after a shoving match with the Pistons' Ben Wallace on Nov. 19, 2004, in Detroit, sparking chaos on the floor and in the stands when Artest went into the crowd in search of the offending customer and teammate Stephen Jackson followed him.
The footage was frightening and resulted in numerous crackdowns implemented by Stern, including nine player suspensions -- with Artest banned for the season's remaining 73 games and Jackson suspended for 30 -- and a dress code starting in October 2005. Players have since been required to wear business-casual clothes on their way in and out of arenas on game days, with blazers mandatory for injured players sitting on the bench during games.
The reality, though, is that the NBA rebounded reasonably quickly from an episode that could have been so much more damaging once its players crossed the lines of the court into fan territory, surviving that initial barrage of negative news coverage that many league insiders believed to be excessive compared to the bad publicity other major sports endured in unsavory situations.
Denver's Carmelo Anthony later was hit with a 15-game suspension for his part in a December 2006 brawl between the Nuggets and Knicks at Madison Square Garden that didn't spill into the stands, clearly paying an additional penalty because of what happened at The Palace of Auburn Hills, but no one has been hurt more by what took place a week before Thanksgiving 2004 than the Pacers. They're the one party involved that has never really recovered, squeaking into the 2005 postseason in spite of the suspensions at 44-38 but heading now for their fourth successive non-playoff season, even after trading away Artest and Jackson.
3. GAME 6, LAKERS-KINGS, 2002 WEST FINALS
What should be remembered as the best playoff series of the decade -- considering the genuine contempt that flowed between the league's top two teams, Horry's Game 4 special and the Lakers' ability to pull out Game 7 in overtime in Sacramento in what was the league's most feared building at the time -- is remembered first and foremost for the shady fourth quarter of Game 6.
It's the game conspiracy theorists cling to even when you remind them that the small-market Spurs have overcome so-called league "manipulation" to win four championships since 1999 and that the league office never stepped in to help the hometown, mega-market Knicks while they were spending much of the 2000s replacing the Los Angeles Clippers as the league's go-to punching bag. It was the conspiracy theorists' Exhibit A even before Donaghy surfaced and made sure to keep bringing it back up.
The Kings have to live with missing 14 free throws in Game 7, but they still are waiting for someone to justify the 27 free throws awarded to the Lakers in that infamous fourth quarter. They're not alone, either.
4. KOBE'S FALL FROM GRACE
The highs on the Kobe Coaster have been spectacular, right from the start of the 2000s.
I'd argue that the most memorable play of Bryant's decade actually was a pass: his lob to Shaquille O'Neal at the peak of the Lakers' comeback from 15 points down in the fourth quarter against Portland in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Then he gave of preview of the ferocity that later would lead America's Redeem Team to Olympic gold in 2008 and the Lakers to the decade's final championship in 2009 by carrying L.A., at the mere age of 21, to a series-turning Game 4 victory over Indiana in the 2000 Finals after Shaq fouled out.
The lows, though, were staggering.
Far more damaging than his forever-strained relationship with O'Neal or the clashes with coach Phil Jackson (due to complaints Jackson had registered in his book) that had to be addressed and then forgotten before they could reunite in the 2005-06 season.
In July 2003, shortly after the Lakers had signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton at greatly reduced salaries in the unrivaled roster experiment of the decade, Bryant was accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee at a Colorado resort where he stayed after knee surgery. The charges ultimately were dismissed in September 2004, sparing Bryant's shattered image from even more damage in a courtroom trial.
But not before Bryant found himself playing out a season unlike any other in history, frequently flying back and forth to Colorado for court appearances on game days, and then -- just before becoming a free agent -- tasting Finals defeat for the first time when the Lakers were routed in five games by the underdog Pistons, unable to cope with Detroit's superior team play. Although Bryant ultimately re-signed with the Lakers after a serious flirtation with the Clippers, O'Neal was traded to Miami and Jackson soon was replaced by Rudy Tomjanovich.5. THE BALL
Stern commemorated his 25th anniversary as NBA commissioner on Feb. 1, 2009, having had a reasonably decent decade for a guy who had to endure No. 1 and No. 2.
Stern pushed for the rules changes that crucially reduced contact on the perimeter entering the 2004-05 season, making the game faster and gradually increasingly scoring after years of excessive physicality. He also managed to avoid a repeat of the devastating 1999 lockout by reaching a deal with union chief Billy Hunter just in time in 2005, continued pushing a global agenda that contributed to the presence of 83 foreign-born players on NBA rosters at the start of the 2009-10 season and kept growing the D-League as pro basketball's first sustained minor league system with baseball-style team affiliations.
But we can't forget the farce that was the synthetic ball.
The NBA stopped using its traditional leather ball and replaced it with an easier-to-produce microfiber composite model starting with training camps in October 2006. But players rebelled immediately and loudly, complaining that the new ball was too sticky when dry, too slippery when wet, too unpredictable when it hit the floor, backboard or rim and at its worst, inflicted cuts on players' hands and fingertips with its high-friction cover.
Less than three months into the switch, Stern was forced to authorize a return to the leather ball for all games starting Jan. 1, 2007, which was believed to be an unprecedented in-season change, in terms of primary equipment, for North American major professional sports leagues.
Kevin Garnett is among the many stars who swapped uniforms this decade. (See Box 1.)
As of Wednesday, LeBron James is old enough to rent a car without any restrictions or additional fees.
Of slightly more relevance, James marked his 25th birthday with his biggest scoring game since March 13 last season, ringing up 48 points in Cleveland's disputed home win over the Hawks.
Atlanta has filed an official protest with the league office because of a shot-clock dispute in the fourth quarter, but for now, James can claim the third-best birthday game in league history, as confirmed below:
Most Points Scored On Birthday
|2000 Shaquille O'Neal||61||28th|
|1987 D. Wilkins||53||27th|
|2009 LeBron James||48||25th|
|1992 Michael Jordan||46||29th|
Most Points Before 25th Birthday
National TV appearances this season: 25
Cavs' average attendance this season: 20,562
Current franchise value according to Forbes: $476 million
Cavs' last season before LeBron: 2002-03
National TV appearances in '02-03: 0
Average attendance in '02-03: 11,497
Franchise value according to Forbes in '02-03: $222 million
LeBron's NBA Jersey Sales Ranking
9.Lowlights Of Decade
Put your fists together if you're going to disgrace the game. Tim Donaghy put a cloud over the NBA with his actions. (See Box 6.)