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David Aldridge

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The Lakers and Spurs combined for seven titles this decade.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Lakers, Spurs dominated the decade


Posted Dec 28 2009 9:48AM

Do you realize that all of these "Best of the Decade" lists and shows that you are reading and watching are a year premature?

A decade doesn't start with Year One. After 12 months, you finish Year One. That means you don't finish 10 years, or a decade, until Year Ten is over. The Oughts Decade runs from 2001-2010, not 2000-2009. So all of these lists should be running in December, 2010.

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But I respond to the will of the people, and so, here is an All-Decade list, submitted for your approval. Or, disapproval. You know what to do either way: daldridgetnt@gmail.com or Twitter me @daldridgetnt.

Team/Front Office of the Decade (2001-09)

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Owner Peter Holt, President of Sports Franchises R.C. Buford, Head Coach/President of Spurs Basketball Gregg Popovich

All you need to know about how the San Antonio Spurs do business can be found in their media guide. The players, and their biographies, come first. Then you get the owner and front office bios. That is not the norm; almost every other team puts its owner or ownership group front and center. But the Spurs are different. They've been different all decade, and that's why they're the gold standard in the NBA.

Yes, San Antonio was extremely lucky to win the Tim Duncan Lottery in 1997. But having a superstar is not enough to win four championships in 10 years, as the Spurs have done. Their ability to procure top-notch talent without having other high draft picks, develop that talent and keep that talent without breaking the bank of a medium-sized revenue team puts them head and shoulders above all other teams.

Many will give the Lakers the title of Best in the Decade, and Los Angeles would be a worthy choice. The Lakers took the first three titles of the decade, and if Shaq and Kobe hadn't gone all Days of Our Lives on everybody, they may have won five or six straight. But they did, and the Lakers didn't. Los Angeles has been to more Finals this decade than San Antonio, and with Bryant and Pau Gasol leading the way, the Lakers could be the team of the 10s. But Los Angeles also had three middling seasons after trading O'Neal to Miami, including a 34-48 disaster in 2004-05.

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Tim Duncan and Tony Parker with their '07 hardware.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

By contrast, under Holt, Buford and Popovich, the Spurs have never won fewer than last season's 54 games, won six Midwest/Southwest Division titles (finishing second in the other three seasons), won the three titles and got to five Western Conference finals, and they did so with a payroll that was a fraction of the Lakers' and other top-revenue teams.

Of course, the Spurs reject all such praise.

Told his team was going to be voted the decade's best on Sunday, Buford spent several minutes texting about how good the Lakers have been. Told I wasn't changing my mind, Buford would only say: "We haven't screwed it up that bad."

That's SOP in San Antonio -- a place whose catch phrase is, "get over yourself." It's a Popovich favorite, meaning whatever you think you bring to the party, forget about it. For the Spurs, team and sacrifice trumps everything. It's why Popovich can yell at Duncan, and Duncan doesn't run to the owner or the media to complain. It's why veterans like Michael Finley come late in their careers, knowing they're going to struggle mightily the first year learning Popovich's complex system, especially the defensive rotations. (That's why no one is too worried that Richard Jefferson is struggling so badly. It gets better.)

It's why Popovich can go to Holt, as he did before the 2006-07 season, and said that he -- Holt -- might want to think about making a coaching change, because he -- Popovich -- thought the players were starting to tune him out.

It's why Holt and the ownership group was willing to go deep into the luxury tax this season in order to take one more run at a title.

"Our case, lots of things played out," Holt says. "I get credit, R.C., Pop. But we lucked out on some deals, to be blunt with you. Then we have an ownership group that's strong. No money's come out of that business, ever, at least since 1993. So the debt on the Spurs is way down. And so we as owners have decided for the next couple of years to give us a little bit of a transition period. We're willing to take some (financial) hits. But that's partly because we have so little debt on the business."

It's no coincidence that so many of the Spurs' former executives and coaches have found homes around the league. It's no coincidence that Buford has a close professional relationship with Scott Pioli, who helped build the Patriots' dynasty, and with Mark Shapiro, the longtime general manager of the Cleveland Indians -- who constantly has retooled the Indians when he's been forced to give up on great players his team can no longer afford.

It seems organizations do win championships, after all.

Team of the Decade (single season)

LOS ANGELES LAKERS, 2001-02
REGULAR SEASON: 58-24
PLAYOFFS: 15-4
FINALS: BEAT NEW JERSEY, 4-0

There were championship teams in the Oughts with better records, and some with better stats, but none of them had as devastating a one-two punch as an in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal and a just-entering-his prime Kobe Bryant. The then-24-year-old Bryant wreaked havoc on defenses that tried to use single coverage on him -- I remember San Antonio hoping Derek Anderson would keep Mamba honest in the postseason the year before -- and averaged 26.6 per playoff game. He could horse it over most teams athletically, and was just about finished learning everything Phil Jackson and Tex Winter could teach about the Triangle. Defensively, he could wreck offenses on the perimeter by himself with his wingspan and footspeed. (Kobe and Derek Fisher were one of the more underrated defensive backcourts of their era.)

And the Diesel? My goodness. A year after destroying Dikembe Mutombo in the Finals, Shaq was unstoppable against poor Jason Collins and Todd MacCullough, averaging 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.75 blocks in the sweep, shooting 59.5 percent from the floor. He even shot 66 percent from the foul line!

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Shaq and Kobe, circa 2002 were unstoppable.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

These Lakers also get the nod because they persevered against a truly worthy opponent -- the Sacramento Kings -- in the best seven-game playoff series of the decade, the '02 Western finals. Sacramento had won 61 regular season games and had home-court advantage. After dominating the Lakers at Staples Center in Game 3, the Kings had a 2-1 series lead, and quickly took a 24-point lead in the first half of Game 4.

But the Lakers rallied , cutting the deficit to 99-97 in the final minute. Bryant missed a leaner in the lane, and Shaq missed a putback. Sacramento's Vlade Divac made a brilliant play, slapping the ball out from under the basket out to the foul line. But it bounced right to Robert Horry, lined up at the top of the key, who drained the most cold-blooded shot in a career full of them, hitting the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

After Bibby's game-winning jumper in Game 5, Sacramento led 3-2. Then came the infamous Game 6, the game of 29 free throws in the fourth quarter by the Lakers, numerous questionable calls against the Kings, and Tim Donaghy's accusations, and conspiracy theories about the officiating that persist to this day. (I will say it again: Game 6 is the one game in 20-plus years that I cannot explain easily, or well.) But still, all that meant is that the Lakers had to win Game 7, on the road, at thunderous Arco Arena. It was the loudest crowd outside of Chicago Stadium during the Jordan Era. The two teams were even through regulation -- there were 16 ties and 19 lead changes -- but the Lakers made free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, while the Kings bricked 14 of 30 from the line, and Los Angeles survived.

Most of L.A.'s role players -- Fisher, Rick Fox, Horry and Lindsey Hunter -- were tough, defensive-minded veterans. (Devean George, in his second season, was the lone youngster in the team's rotation.) This team, though, wasn't as talented as, say, last season's championship squad. But no one else had a fully-formed Shaq and Kobe, at the height of their powers.

Player of the Decade

KOBE BRYANT, LAKERS

Many have challenged him: Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony -- and, of course, LeBron. But every time, the answer has been the same: not yet, kid. Every time this decade, Kobe Bean Bryant has made you acknowledge his superiority over the rest, give props to his superior work ethic, unyielding resolve -- and, of late, his team building skills. All of it in the best package this league has seen since Michael Jordan, who was Bryant's clear and present role model.

"He wasn't a bad teammate," said Robert Horry, who played with Bryant on the Threepeat teams.

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DA agrees with you Kobe, you're No. 1
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

"He was a very competitive teammate, and some guys may have taken it the wrong way. I didn't. Like, during the season, he might not talk to the guys on the second team for two or three days. People expect you to let things go. He couldn't. He did not want to lose."

Early in Bryant's tenure with the Lakers, Horry recalled, the team had veterans like Brian Shaw and Mitch Richmond. Horry and those guys would frequently play the "string," a shooting game outside the three-point line.

"Kob would always watch us play, but he would never play," Horry said. "Kobe never shot threes in 2001, because he couldn't. But one day he came over and said 'all right, let me play with y'all.' He got eliminated real quick.

"We kept playing all year, and we'd always see Kobe at the other end, working on his threes, working on his threes. He'd come over again, and got his (rear) eliminated again, but he hung in there. He kept working on his threes. By the end of the year, he started winning, and talking (smack) like you see him doing all the time. He was determined not to get his butt whipped."

Bryant grew into greatness as Shaquille O'Neal's second, then his equal. He was just 21 when he showed he could carry a team in the whitest of light and hottest of heat, taking over when Shaq fouled out of Game 4 of the 2000 Finals against Indiana. It was Bryant who scored eight in overtime to give the Lakers the breakthrough victory that would spur them to dynasty. It was Bryant whom the Spurs, L.A.'s rival, couldn't guard in 2002 and 2003, when Los Angeles kept the party going. By the time the Lakers completed their Threepeat, Shaq was acknowledging that Bryant was the future.

Then came the valley.

Whatever happened in that Colorado hotel room in June, 2003, between Bryant and a young woman that was not his wife will always be known only to them. The impact, though, was shattering. Charged with sexual assualt, Bryant had to spend much of the next 14 months, literally, on the defensive, splitting time between court appearances in Colorado and games in Los Angeles. That he continued to dominate on the court was remarkable.

After the charges were dismissed in September, 2004 -- two months after the Lakers traded O'Neal to Miami -- Bryant had to rebuild everything -- his reputation, his endorsements, his relationship with Phil Jackson, who was let go as head coach after the Lakers lost the 2004 Finals to Detroit, only to be re-hired a year later. It did not happen quickly, or easily; there was a disastrous come-from-ahead loss to Phoenix in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, in which Bryant appeared disinterested to shoot in the second half of Game 7, as the game, and the series, and his team, unraveled on the court. There was a demand to be traded when the Lakers came up short again the following postseason.

But, then, came the third act. There is always a third act, right?

The Lakers picked up Pau Gasol from Memphis, and Bryant now had his own second, someone great that wouldn't mind being the second wheel. He gained Jackson's trust, as Jackson re-gained his. Bryant led the Lakers back to the Finals in 2008, when they were outtoughed by the Celtics, but the arc was going back up. Then came a star turn at the Olympics in Beijing, with Bryant hand-picked by Jerry Colangelo to be the uber male on a team full of superegos. Bryant's presence made it okay for the others to be coached by Mike Krzyzewski; he set the tempo and pace for a U.S. team desperate to make up for the horrific experience of the 2004 team in Athens.

Bryant led the U.S. team to gold, then led the Lakers through all comers, en route to a 4-1 victory over Orlando in the Finals, a 15th franchise championship, and Most Valuable Player honors.

Now 31, Bryant is still the standard, the ultimate test for an up and comer, but he doesn't rise to the bait. He knows when to attack -- don't get it twisted, he still can -- and when to lay in the weeds. He trusts his teammates. He believes in the offense. He is, as he always was, beloved by the Lakers' fan base, which always preferred him to Shaq. He is a champion in his own right, owing nothing to no one, a creation all his own, now in his 14th smash season.

Coach of the Decade

PHIL JACKSON, LAKERS

I desperately wanted to give this to Jerry Sloan. Not because I don't recognize the job that Jackson has done, but because Sloan so rarely gets recognition for the job he's done in Utah. (It is an embarassment to my profession that Sloan has yet to win Coach of the Year honors.) I wouldn't have minded giving this to Gregg Popovich, who has molded the Spurs into his own, no-nonsense image.

But you have to give it to Jackson, who broke Red Auerbach's record for championships won last June with title number 10, his fourth with the Lakers, after going six for six with the Bulls.

You cannot ignore the fact that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal won nothing -- nothing -- until Jackson's arrival in Los Angeles in 2000. You cannot ignore the fact that the Lakers became a dominant team under Jackson, who knew when to challenge, when to push, when to pull back, when to go all Zen on their collective butts and when to keep it real. Jerry Buss got rid of Jackson after the Lakers lost the 2004 Finals, then had the sense to swallow his pride and bring him back a year later, writing check after check (the current tally is $12 million annually) to keep him around. You cannot ignore a coach that's won 71 percent of his games in the NBA and an amazing 51 playoff series.

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If the Lakers win again, where will the 11th ring fit?
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Jackson has, somehow, rebuilt his relationship with Bryant, whom he called "uncoachable" and "narssicistic" in a tell-all book written after the 2004 season. He has, somehow, managed to establish, maintain and keep healthy a relationship with Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president, the boss of the business side of the franchise -- and the daughter of Jerry Buss. He has maintained his health after undergoing an emergency angioplasty in 2003 that prevented a massive heart attack and hip replacement surgery in 2006 that left him sitting in a throne-like chair to ease the pain.

He has done all this while being interesting, occasionally profane, always challenging, often condescending but never dull, on his second loose cannon, Ron Artest, after winning three rings with his first, Dennis Rodman. He's on his second megastar, with Bryant in Jordan's place. He's into a second decade with the Lakers after insisting he could never go that long with one team because, inevitably, players would tune out the message.

But he's first among coaches.

All-Decade Team

G: Steve Nash, Suns
G: Kobe Bryant, Lakers
F: Tim Duncan, Spurs
F: Kevin Garnett, Celtics
C: Shaquille O'Neal, Cavaliers

Point guard came down to two worthy candidates: Nash and Jason Kidd. Their credentials reflected their joint dominance: Kidd led the Nets to consecutive Finals appearances in '02 and '03; Nash won consecutive league MVP honors in '05 and '06. Both improved the stats and the bank accounts of teammates: Shawn Marion and Kenyon Martin should both still be tithing to their respective maestros. The Nasty One gets the nod by a hair by virtue of his continuing impact, long after the Mavericks thought he was breaking down and most of the rest of us thought he'd flounder without Mike D'Antoni.

Kobe didn't have any real serious competition at two guard. Reggie Miller retired in 2005; Tracy McGrady hasn't been able to stay healthy. Duncan and Garnett are both power forwards, but it would criminal to dis-include one of them over the likes of Carmelo Anthony or Chris Webber, good as both of them are (and were). LeBron? Didn't get to the L until '03, and he doesn't have any hardware yet. This has been the Shaq Era of centers; everyone else is a pretender to His Shaqnificence.

Shot of the Decade

May 9, 2007
BY: Derek Fisher, Jazz
SCORE: Utah 120, Golden State 117
TIME REMAINING: 1:06, overtime

Derek Fisher has never, ever begged off from taking big postseason shots. He is the owner of what people in Los Angeles simply call "Point Four," as in, the miraculous shot Fisher hit in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Finalsto beat San Antonio. He hit the game-tying 3 in Game 4 of last season's Finals against Orlando. But they paled in comparison to the shot Fisher hit when he wasn't a Laker, when he wore the home white of the Utah Jazz.

For most of the 2006-07 season, things were going well for Fisher, who'd asked to be traded from Golden State to a contender, and got his wish, mentoring rookie Deron Williams and playing in all 82 games for the Jazz. But everything changed on May 2, when his 10-month old daughter Tatum was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer that had been detected behind her eye. Surgery was necessary, and had to be immediate in order to remove the tumor and same Tatum's life. What had had the potential to be poignant -- a second-round series with his old Warriors teammates -- now was irrelevant, as Fisher and his family flew to New York for Tatum's surgery. Fisher missed Game 1 of the series, and was expected to miss Game 2 at Energy Solutions Arena -- the game was the same day as the operation.

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Derek Fisher was playing for so much more in 2007.
Harry How/NBAE via Getty Images

The operation took more than two hours, but was deemed a success. Fisher and his family took a charter provided by the Jazz back to Salt Lake City, but Fisher had no intention of playing; he wanted to be with Tatum and his family. When the plane landed, though, Fisher got word that Utah had no point guards left; Dee Brown had injured his neck, and Williams was in foul trouble. Fisher had to ask his wife, Candace, if it was okay to leave and go to the arena. She said yes, and off he went. He hadn't touched a ball since the family had gone to New York four days earlier.

Fisher got there with 3:17 left in the third and immediately went in, as the home crowd went wild, not getting time to think about anything. He didn't want to force any shots, though, and spent much of the third and fourth quarters thinking about defense, not scoring. It was Williams who forced the overtime with a runner in the lane with two seconds left in regulation.

Utah jumped out on Golden State in overtime, leading by five with 1:37 to go. But after the Warriors' Stephen Jackson made two free throws, it was a one-possession game.

Williams got a crosscourt pass from Mehmet Okur and drove of the left wing, then passed the ball to the left corner, to the open guy. It was the man who hadn't picked up a basketball in four days, who had begun the day 2,000 miles away, in a New York hospital, hoping his infant daughter would be brave as she faced the fight of her young life, who would have been forgiven by anyone with a pulse if he had begged off and spent the night in his little girl's room.

Fisher didn't hesitate. And he drained it. It was his only shot of the game. The Jazz went on to win the game, and the series.

Buzzer-Beater of the Decade

May 25, 2009
BY: LeBron James, Cavaliers
SCORE: Magic 95, Cavaliers 93
TIME LEFT: :01, fourth quarter

Orlando looked like it was going to sweep both games in Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals and take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series, when James rose up over Hedo Turkoglu (did Hedo come over late? Reggie thought so) and drained a 27-footer from the top of the key to give the Cavs the improbable win. Orlando still won the series in six but with this shot James only furthered his status as a great postseason performer.

Dunk of the Decade

I have three finalists:

Dec. 20, 2002
BY: Amar'e Stoudemire
OVER: Michael Olowokandi

Pre-microfracture STAT, in his rookie season, rose and flushed over the unlamented Olowokandi, but it's Steph's reaction that makes it immortal.

April 25, 2005
BY: Tracy McGrady
OVER: Shawn Bradley

I was doing sidelines for Game 2 of this first-rounder between Dallas and Houston, and thinking about my next on-air hit, when McGrady went baseline and eviscerated the 7-foot-6 Bradley.

May 11, 2007
BY: Baron Davis
OVER: Andrei Kirilenko

The Warriors were well on their way to winning Game of the 2007 Western Conference semifinals over Utah when Davis went baseline and flushed on AK-47, one of the game's best shot blockers. "Once you see a defender or he's coming in late," Davis later told Sports Illustrated, "and you got enough room to take off and you know you can land comfortably, that's what automatically triggers it for me."

My pick: McGrady. So vicious.

Performance of the Decade

Three more finalists:

January 22, 2006
THE FEAT: 81 points
BY: Kobe Bryant, Lakers

The best thing that can be said about Bryant's night against Toronto -- 28-for-46 from the floor, 18-for-20 from the foul line, seven 3-pointers -- was that the Lakers needed every one of them to come from 18 points down in the second half to overtake the Raptors. There was no showboating, no messing with the integrity of the game (which, in fairness, must be said about Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962, when the Philadelphia Warriors purposely fouled Knicks players again and again in the final quarter so that they could get Chamberlain more shots). The Lakers needed Bryant to be that otherworldly to win, and he was.

He scored 55 in the second half -- 27 in the third, 28 in the fourth -- to lead the Lakers to a 122-104 win. Only Chamberlain has scored more in an NBA game.

"Not even in my dreams," Bryant told reporters afterward.

Here are all of them, in three minutes.

MAY 31, 2007
THE FEAT: 29 straight points
BY: LeBron James, Cavaliers

He had been terrific in playoff series before, but in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, James made a lasting mark. Scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, and the last 25 points in a row, James single-handedly beat one of the league's premier defenses, on the road, in the biggest game of the season. The Pistons tried everything. They went big with Jason Maxiell, and LeBron blew by him; they tried to long with Tayshaun Prince, and James went through him; they tried trapping him, and he shot over them, they tried doubling him, and he drove past them. Then he muscled through all of them for the game-winning drive in the second overtime.

Dec. 9, 2004
THE FEAT: 13 points in 33 seconds
BY: Tracy McGrady, Rockets

The Rockets trailed 74-64 with a minute left when a Yao Ming dunk, followed by a David Padgett steal and dunk, cut the deficit to six. San Antonio's Devin Brown made two free throws with 44.2 seconds left, but the rest was McGrady. He hit a three over Malik Rose with 35 seconds left to make it 76-71, and after Brown made two more foul shots at the other end, McGrady countered again, this time hitting a three while getting fouled by Tim Duncan with 24.3 to go. His free throw brought Houston within 78-75.

Duncan was fouled at 16.2 and made both free throws, but McGrady got Andre Barrett's inbounds pass just before a five-second call, dribbled hard to his right and rose over Bowen for another three with 11.2 seconds remaining, making it 80-78. The Spurs called time and moved the ball to halfcourt. Brown got Brent Barry's inbounds pass and dribbled to the baseline, where Padgett may have shoved him, a little; at any rate, Brown hit the deck and lost the ball, and McGrady came up with him under his basket, eight seconds left.

He dribbled up court, drifted to his left, pulled up in front of Tony Parker and alongside Barry -- who contested the shot, but not close enough that a foul would be called -- and drilled his fourth three in the final minute, giving the Rockets an 81-80 lead with 1.7 seconds left. Parker's desperation heave at the buzzer missed, and Houston had stolen the game, with McGrady scoring 13 of his 33 points in the final 33 seconds.

"I don't know how I got 'em off," McGrady told Craig Sager afterward. But he did.

My pick: James. Bryant was incredible, but the combination of time, place, moment and opponent makes James's achievement stand above the rest.

Assist of the Decade

April 25, 2003
BY: Mo Cheeks, Coach, Portland

I was covering the Mavericks-Blazers first-round series when 13-year-old Miss Gilbert, in a beautiful black and white dress, came out to sing the national anthem. Unfortunately, about 20 seconds in, it became excruiciatingly clear that she had either lost her place, or forgotten the words. (It's a tough song.) She started looking around, and all of us at the Rose Garden thought the same thing: poor kid. Which is when Cheeks walked over from the Portland bench, put his arm around her and started singing, a little off-key, but got her back on track. By the end, we were all singing, a little teary-eyed.

Trade of the Decade

July14, 2004
Los Angeles Lakers trade C SHAQUILLE O'NEAL to the Miami Heat for F LAMAR ODOM, F BRIAN GRANT, G CARON BUTLER and a future first-round draft pick.

It had been rumored for a couple of weeks, but when Shaq gave his blessing, on a Saturday afternoon, and the deal officially went down, it was still a shock. O'Neal had been the lynchpin of the Lakers' three straight titles, and even if he and Kobe had had their issues with one another, the two of them still comprised the league's most unstoppable duo. But owner Jerry Buss had had enough of Shaq's weight issues and his injuries, and decided if he had to pay one of them, it would be the 25-year-old Bryant, not the 32-year-old O'Neal.

Shaq got to four titles first, winning it all in 2006 with Dwyane Wade in Miami, while Bryant's Lakers floundered (it didn't help that they had traded Butler after one season to Washington for, um, Kwame Brown). But that was the highlight of the Diesel's post-Lakers career; he soon started sniping at Pat Riley was shipped in 2007 to Phoenix, which traded him after a year and a half to Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Mitch Kupchak got Pau Gasol from Memphis, drafted Andrew Bynum and brought Derek Fisher back from Utah -- while Odom became an unreplaceable key man in Phil Jackson's rotation, moving the ball, scoring when he had to and making things easier for everybody. The Lakers took Orlando out in five games last season, Kobe had his fourth ring, and all, allegedly, was good between the former feuding teammates.

Innovation of the Decade

The Basketball Blogosphere

At the start of the oughts, there weren't many of us on a national level breaking down the L. Peter Vescey was on NBC, I was on ESPN, Sam Smith was at the Chicago Tribune, Jack McCallum and Jackie MacMullen were at Sports Illustrated, Mark Heisler was at the L.A. Times, Mike Monroe was at the Denver Post and David Moore was at the Dallas Morning News. There were others, but NBA information was pretty much limited to what you read in the papers or saw on TV. Closed shop.

That's over.

The Internet democratized journalism, for good and bad, but more for good. And NBA coverage was no different. Blogging about pro basketball soon became a crowded -- and, in some cases, lucrative -- endeavor.

The pie was big enough that one could carve out a good-sized niche. Chad Ford turned his Pro Basketball Talk blog into a gig with ESPN.com, specializing in draft prospects outside of the U.S.; David Berri, an economics professor, teamed with two other eggheads to apply statistical analysis to the game in their "Wages of Wins" blog; Lang Whitaker made SLAM Magazine (and slamonline.com) must reading with his daily compendium, "The Links;" Larry Coon became the go-to guy on any question relating to the salary cap, collective bargaining agreement or league rules; John Hollinger came up with the Player Efficiency Rating -- PER -- to rate players' per-minute productivity, a stat that has become for the NBA what on-base percentage became for baseball; new stats like pace (points per 48 minutes) and offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) became standard data for anyone looking to look beyond the usual numbers, like field goal percentage and points allowed or scored per game to determine a team's success.

There are too many good blogs to list here, but whether it is a summary of all the NBA news of the day (HoopsHype), a team-centric blog written by fans (Golden State of Mind, 3 Shades of Blue) or an owner (Mark Cuban's BlogMaverick), newspaper-affiliated reporting blogs, blogs that combine amassing of other sites with original reporting (Henry Abbott's TrueHoop) or those that are some combination of everything, there's something to learn from many of them. If you're not reading all of them, you're behind. Including the all-star talent now part of the NBA.com team: blogger Sekou Smith, John Schuhmann, Art Garcia, Fran Blinebury, Steve Aschburner, Shaun Powell, Scott Howard-Cooper and Vince Thomas.

Dribbles

It's not panic time yet in the Assocation, but the clock is running on a couple of teams. For one, the Wizards; for two, Golden State.

Figure New Year's Day for Washington, and if things haven't turned around dramatically, Washington is likely to take a bat to its underachieving, 8-17 roster. There isn't much demand for Gilbert Arenas, despite his showing signs of offensive life during Washington's recent road trip. But Caron Butler has admirers around the league, and Antawn Jamison's perimeter ability at power forward makes him intriguing to many. Teams also are inquring, like always, about second-year center JaVale McGee. But the Wizards are reluctant in the extreme to part with McGee or fifth-year forward Andray Blatche, who's showing signs he gets it.

But they may not have much choice. New ownership, in the likely form of Ted Leonsis, will soon be in place, and after that, it's anyone's guess how patient--or impatient--Leonsis will be with Washington's existing braintrust, headed by team president Ernie Grunfeld.

Out west, the fire sale Golden State is supposedly having is, according to at least one dialed-in personnel man, more an attempt to get out from under a couple of onerous contracts than a legit desire to get rid of Steph Curry, Anthony Randolph and other youngin's, though they will listen to offers for anyone. "You can have (Corey) Maggette, if you want. (Ronny) Turiaf, too," the personnel guy said, but any GM that bites on Maggette's contract (three years and $30.7 million left after this season) needs to have his license revoked. Turiaf (two and $8.3 million left after this season) is just slightly more palatable.

Top O' the World, Ma!

(last week's ranking in brackets)

1) L.A. Lakers [2] (22-4): Strolled through the east on road trip.

2) Boston [1] (21-5): Stumble at home to 76ers costs C's top spot.

3) Atlanta [3] (19-7): Hawks' 8.3 point differential third only to Lakers, Celtics.

4) Dallas [4] (20-8): Impressive win over Cleveland without Nowitzki Sunday.

5) Orlando [5] (20-7): Jameer Nelson back this week.

6) Cleveland [7] (20-8): Sunday began brutal stretch of 11 out of 15 on road.

7) Denver [6] (19-9): George Karl agitating for another big man.

8) Phoenix [8] (18-9): Suns only remaining unbeaten team at home.

9) Utah [9] (16-11): D Wil apologizes for team after horrible effort in Atlanta.

10) Portland [10] (17-12): Schedule gets very tough next two weeks.

11) San Antonio [13] (14-10): Bad break: Matt Bonner out a month.

12) Houston [11] (16-11): McGrady back, but for how long?

13) New Orleans [15] (12-14): Held seven of last eight under 100.

14) Miami [14] (13-12): Players meeting after 28-point home loss to Memphis.

15 Oklahoma City [12] (13-13): Ibaka, Harden giving good bench production.

Team of the Week

Lakers (4-0): After getting a gift schedule to start the season --17 of their first 21 at home -- the only question about Los Angeles was whether it would be as dominant on the road. Answer: a 4-1 trip that included a gift win at Milwaukee and three fairly easy wins at Chicago, New Jersey and Detroit.

Team of the Weak

New Jersey (0-4): It's like picking on the defenseless, but they're beyond terrible. Their deal to play games in Newark next year is in peril. They can't fire the coach again. No team needs it to be 2014 more than the Nets.

Nobobdy asked me, but ...

Do we have to re-think this whole 'Brandon Jennings is a lock for Rookie of the Year' notion?

I was in Milwaukee Saturday to see Jennings go head-to-head with Sacramento's Tyreke Evans, who has ... well, let's just let one member of the Kings' organization who wanted to keep his name out of it put Evans' name in it.

"I think he's the best rookie in the league since Tim Duncan," the Sacramentan said, and, yeah, that's saying something.

A quarter of the way through his first season, Evans has made the ROTY race extremely close. He's averaging 20 points per game, compared with Jennings at 20.3; he's tops among rookies in rebounds (5.1) and second among all point guards in rebounding to Dallas' Jason Kidd; he's second to Jennings among rookies in assists (6.2 to 5.1); he leads rookies in steals (1.52) and is sixth overall in steals among all points. No matter who wins the award, Evans and Jennings -- or, Jennings and Evans, if you prefer -- head a banner crop of point guards.

"I thought in this draft class, a lot of people doubted us," Evans said at his locker Saturday night. "They said this was one of the weakest draft classes that came out. When we was getting drafted, we was like, they don't realize, we're a good group of guys. They just haven't watched enough of us, I guess."

Saturday, Jennings and Evans led their respective, surprising squads in a taut contest that came down to the last second, and each had his hands on the ball down the stretch.

Jennings, two free throws, 1:05 left. Milwaukee, 91-90.

The Kings score on a beautiful play: Beno Udrih, coming hard off a screen, dropped the ball off to Jason Thompson in the paint, who made an excellent touch pass to Spencer Hawes for a go-ahead dunk, 55.3 seconds left. Sacramento, 92-91.

Jennings, two more free throws, 20.4 left. Milwaukee, 93-92.

Evans, looking for all the world like he was still in John Calipari's dribble-drive offense, coming off a screen at the top of the key and dribbling full speed toward the basket, then turning over his shoulder after leaving his feet to find Thompson, who made a very tough short hook in the lane with 11.9 to go. Sacramento, 94-93.

Jennings, who inbounded the ball on the Bucks' last two possessions, coming up with a loose ball after his inbounds pass toward Andrew Bogut was tipped, then hitting an open Ersan Ilyasova for the layin, five seconds left. Milwaukee, 95-94.

Then, Evans, again, taking the ball at the top, getting a screen from Thompson to free him from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, giving a devastating ball fake to Andrew Bogut to freeze him in his tracks in the paint, crossing him over and going for a reverse layin off the glass with 0.9 seconds left. Sacramento, 96-95. Bogut missed a last-second jumper and the Kings escaped with the road win.

"I think when I'm coming full speed at my defender, I think I'm pretty much unstoppable," Evans said.

Jennings and Evans are both getting their education on a nightly basis. Bigger guards, quicker guards, double-teams, jumping them before they can penetrate, trapping them, picking them up full-court. A week of NBA games is a great education for a young, developing talent.

On Tuesday, Evans made 7-for-9 shots in Portland, but got shut down in the fourth quarter when the Blazers put Brandon Roy on him down the stretch. The next night, he scored at will against the Wizards, getting his 6-6 frame into the paint whenever he wanted, en route to 26 points. And at the end of the game, Evans was one-on-one with the Wizards' Gilbert Arenas in the final moments, with the Kings trying to preserve a two-point lead. Evans guessed that Arenas would try to cross him over ("I watched his chest," Evans said Saturday night), stuck his never-ending left arm out and picked Arenas clean to save the game.

Friday, Evans -- who's been battling tendinitis the last week -- struggled in Minnesota. The Wolves tried to get more physical with him, putting 6-foot-7 Damien Wilkins on Evans, and it worked. Evans was just 4-for-12 from the floor. Afterward, Kings coach Paul Westphal sat his rookie down, for the first time in six weeks.

"Understand," Westphal told him, "that every game is not going to be a masterpiece in this league, and particularly for someone who's only played 25 of them."

Then came Saturday, and a great battle between two teenagers who are the new faces of their franchises, two kids who've known each other since their first days on the court, playing AAU basketball against each other, playing at Rucker Park against each other in the Elite 24 Hoops Classic in 2006, playing against each other as high school phenoms. Always, it seems, playing against each other.

"We beat them, 14 and under, we won the national championship, beat them in the Final Four," Evans said. "They beat us in high school. When he was at Oak Hill, they beat us by one. So when he was at the foul line, I whispered to him, 'give me one. You owe me from Oak Hill.' He started laughing."

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

Molson to Near Beer? From Daniel Thurgood:

This is a follow-up to your recent article about the Jazz having Boozer and the Knicks pick as trade bait. I though I'd play GM again for a minute (I'm sure you get this a lot) There is one player I think could make the Jazz (an) actual contender - Chris Bosh.

He plays both the 4 and 5 so we could have the leagues best 3 man big rotation (Okur-Millsap-Bosh). It helps our match-up problem against the Lakers as he could go toe-to-toe (literally and figuratively) with Gasol. Plus though not a great defender, Bosh is longer and quicker than Boozer and can block a shot. To top it off he's a great locker room guy. Though Utah isn't a big draw to Utah but there are reasons it could work:

1- Boozer can get the most money via sign and trade as you wrote. He may not want to go to Toronto. But as we know. Boozer will follow the money.

2- Toronto is struggling and it is looking more and more like he is a goner. Toronto doesn't want to lose Bosh for nothing. This way they can get an All-star power forward and a top-ten pick.

3 - Bosh can get his big payday and play on a contender.

I'll never say never, but I'd be shocked if Boozer would agree to such a deal, and he'd have to agree to make it work.

Sadly, the Red Lion isn't quite enough. From John Wynn:

I would like one of you to please tell me what the NBA has against the fans in Portland. In the past 58 years of NBA All-Star games, Portland is the only franchise that has not held an all-star game. I understand that the reasons given for not letting Portland host the game are not enough hotel rooms. I ask you, how many rooms do you think you will need in a city (that) supports its franchise as Portland does? I am sending this to hopefully spark a discussion for the 2012 NBA All-Star game.

It's not personal John; it is, indeed, hotel space. All-Star Weekend is not only the league's signature event; it's become one of the entertainment world's biggest get-togethers, along the lines of the MTV Music Awards, or the Essence Festival in New Orleans. You have singers, rappers, actors, musicians, and all their hangers-on, most of the NBA's league office personnel, the players and their families, the media, the league's corporate sponsors and their families and friends, and fans who drive or fly in from around the country and from nearby states and towns--many of whom don't have any tickets for any of the NBA events, but come anyway for the parties--all descending on a city. They all need places to stay. For your typical ASW, the league says, a city needs at least 5,000 available hotel rooms. Portland just doesn't have that at the moment.

MVP Watch

1) Kobe Bryant (34.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4 apg, .510 FG, .780 FT): What would he do with 10 good fingers?

2) Dwight Howard (14.5 ppg, 17.8 rpg, 4.5 bpg, .556 FG): Monster week from Superman.

3) LeBron James (27.5 ppg, 6.25 rpg, 7 apg, .444 FG, .789 FT): Is it possible he's already played 500 games?

4) Kevin Garnett (14.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, .538 FG, 1,000 FT): Continues to set the tone.

5) Carmelo Anthony (31.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, .448 FG, .884 FT): 30 or more points 18 times this season.

By the Numbers

17 - Consecutive games, according to the Arizona Republic, that the Suns have lost on TNT, including a couple of preseason games, dating back to March 13, 2008, after falling 104-100 Thursday in Portland.

47 - Number of three-point attempts taken by the Knicks on Thursday in their 98-89 loss in Chicago, a franchise record and the second-highest number of threes in league history. (New York made 16 of them).

700 - Career victories for Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich after San Antonio's last-second victory over Indiana Saturday.

I'm Feelin ...

1) Christmas Day Hoops. Morning: unwrapping presents. Afternoon: Lunch w/ fam. Evening: Ballers. If there's a better way to spend 24 hours, let me know.

2) Geoff Petrie, getting it done again. To those who still insist smaller market teams can't compete and rebuild, look at what the Kings' GM has done, for a second time, in one of the league's smallest cities, for a team that desperately needs a revenue-producing building but can't get one. Yes, it was painful stripping the team the past three years, but Petrie has built it back up despite not having a pick higher than fourth overall since 2004: Kevin Martin (26th overall, 2004), Francisco Garcia (23rd, 2005), Spencer Hawes (10th, 2007), Jason Thompson (12th, 2008), Tyreke Evans (fourth, 2009) and Omri Casspi (23rd, 2009).

3) College Coaches, sniping. Bob Knight told a dinner audience at a fundraiser in Indianapolis on Thursday that college basketball lacks integrity, citing the hiring of John Calipari by the University of Kentucky. "You see we've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he's still coaching," Knight said, referring to the vacating of Calipari's Final Four teams at UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008) because of violations. (Calipari was not personally sanctioned by the NCAA in either instance./ Knight is no saint when it comes to mistakes, but someone needs to tell the truth about what college basketball has become.

4) Elton Brand. NIce couple of games out of purgatory.

4a) Marreese Speights. My fantasy team rejoices at your return.

4b) Kyle Korver. Ditto.

5) Carl Landry's face. Any more questions about how tough he and the Rockets are?

6) Pittsburgh 37, Green Bay 36. That's some pretty good December NFL theatre.

7) Memphis at home. That's wins over Dallas, Cleveland and Denver at FedEx Forum in the month of December after Sunday's victory over the Nuggets. Pretty good.

Not Feelin' ...

1) The Eastern Conference, train wreck. The EC has four elite teams -- Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, Atlanta -- and 11, um, mediocrities. Miami, at a robust 13-12, has the fifth spot; everyone else, outside of 2-26 New Jersey, is still in the playoff hunt.

2) Referees Joe Forte, Phil Robinson and Marc Davis, Wednesday night. When a defender takes contact square in the chest, as Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut did in overtime against Kobe Bryant, that's a charge. Period.

3) Me, taking a gratuitious shot at Gilbert Arenas last week. In "Not Feelin'," I noted that Arenas had missed four free throws in the final seconds against Boston and Indiana. The first thing I mentioned, though, was that Arenas has a $111 million contract -- which, if you think about it, which I didn't, has nothing to do with his missing free throws; the misses would have been just as harmful to Washington if he was making, say, $60 million instead. It was just a gratuitous shot, and I was wrong to take it. (What I should have written: "You say you feel healthy. If that's true, you have to make your free throws.")

4) Coach D'Antoni's analogy. No matter what you meant to say about Nate Robinson, dropping Satan into the conversation is a non-starter.

5) My hands and feet, after the three days of shoveling in front of me.

Tweet of the Week

Nothing like a little oatmeal while watching some scooby doo to start the day off right.
--
Kings rookie forward Jon Brockman (@mrjonbrockman), 12:03 p.m., Tuesday, confirming what we all knew. Zoinks.

Mr. Fifteen

This Week's Mr. Fifteen is Bucks center Francisco Elson. The 33-year-old Dutch-born big man has played just four games for Milwaukee this season, totalling 19 minutes. That's a disappointing start for Elson, who'd hoped to back up Andrew Bogut for the Bucks this year after playing 59 games for them in 2008. But Elson has been beaten out for backup minutes this season by Kurt Thomas.

Elson has been in the league since 2003, when he joined Denver four years after the Nuggets took him in the second round of the 1999 draft. (Elson spent those four years playing in Spain--including two with powerhouse F.C. Barcelona. Elson played three seasons for Denver, including his best as an NBA player, 2005-06, when he started 52 games and appeared in 72. That summer, he appeared to strike it rich figuratively and literally by signing a two-year, $6 million deal with San Antonio. He started half of the season for the Spurs, playing in 70 games total, and was a member of San Antonio's last championship team. But he lost playing time the following season to Matt Bonner, and midway through the year he was traded to Seattle.

da_elson.jpg
Francisco Elson
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

He signed with Milwaukee last season, starting 23 of 59 games. But his time this season was sucked up by Thomas, who came from San Antonio in the Richard Jefferson trade.

Me: What do you do to keep yourself ready to play?

Francisco Elson: I've been kind of in that position since day one, since I came to the NBA. I remember when I was in Denver, George Karl, he told me I was an insurance policy. Basically, you have to stay in shape by coming to the gym, doing conditioning, getting shots up, exercising with the basketball where you feel the basketball. At times when you do practice, you try to go 100 miles per hour. Because practice is different from the games. If you go through the motions, then obviously, you're not in shape. Because as soon as you step out on the court, it's a different ballgame.

Me: Is there anyone you work with here to keep you sharp?

FE: I mean, every coach on the team helps you out. The only thing you have to do is go ask. You just have to go out there and ask: 'coach, are you coming in tomorrow? Can you work me out?' So that's what you have to do. Or you have to go in there individually. There's always the shotgun. You don't need a coach, basically. Just go out there and work on the shotgun.

Me: Do you think part of the reason you doon't play is that people believe you can handle it?

FE: I don't think so. I mean, sometimes you have to look into the mirror. When you reach a certain age when you look at the NBA, a lot of teams have young guys. If you look at the league right now, a lot of guys are between 19, 20, between 20 and 25. And most of those guys are stars already, like the guys from Portland--Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge. You look at the whole league, everybody is much younger. Because those are the players that become more entertaining. People love to see them play. The older guys are the veterans, because they have been playing for a long time. When you're a veteran, of course you're not going to be happy, because you're sitting on the bench to a younger player. Of course you're not going to be happy. It's a tough situation to handle.

Me: Did you think you'd get more of a shot based on what you did in Denver and around the league?

FE: (Gregg) Popovich gave me a great chance to play. We won the championship, I was very happy. So I felt, this is how it's going to be for the rest of my life. But things change. Teams want to get better, teams want to win a championship. You've got to stay on top of your stuff. What put you through, that's what you have to do. You have to come in early, you have to get your shots, you have to stay in shape, you have to be injury-free. You have to be a pro's pro. Like the guy from L.A., Derek Fisher. Pro's pro. He comes in, he does his work, he runs his team, he does what he has to do. When you're a veteran player you've got to realize that this is what you do, and when a younger player comes in, you're basically stepping down and giving him the ropes. But it's a tough situation, of course, because you love the game and you always want to play.

Me: What do you think you'll do after this season?

FE: Hopefully, I'll get a chance on another team. Because if you think about it, people that know me -- or don't know me -- I've only been playing basketball since I was 16 years old. I started late. This is my seventh year in the NBA, and I had never played basketball before that age. So most of these guys are my age, and they have 14, 15 years of an NBA career. I haven't. So I'm still, I can run with the best of these guys. I can run. I've never had a major injury. So I feel I can play another five, six, seven years. The way I'm built, I should be able to do it. I think I'm still in great shape.

They said it

"I thought you were 36 or 37 until I read the news today. A 33-year-old man who has been a model citizen with so much at stake. This is your first publicly known issue since your started your career, compared to my 50 or more publicly known issues and mistakes."
-- Lakers forward Ron Artest, in "My Letter to Tiger," published Tuesday on Artest's Web site.

"I have to be real and not lie. I'm not going to get it done in the NBA."
-- Knicks center Darko Milicic, to the New York Post, saying that he's definitely going to play in Europe next season after his contract expires. If Milicic goes there and stays, he'll go down in NBA annals as one of the great draft busts of all time.

"I didn't know what to expect. I knew it was going to be different from my experience in Memphis. Winning changes the whole picture."
-- Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who was nice enough to call regarding his involvement with the Hoops for St. Jude http://www.hoopsforstjude.org/ program., on whether being in Los Angeles was everything he could have expected. The website Hoopsworld first reported last week that Gasol was close to a three-year extension with the Lakers through 2014.

Oh. Happy Holidays to all of you, from all of me.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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