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Shaun Powell

LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal had a big impact on the NBA of the last decade.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

In a topsy-turvy decade, these 10 people shaped the NBA

Posted Dec 8 2009 3:40PM

The decade began with the Lakers winning a championship and as it comes to a close we find the Lakers are defending champions again. Life in the NBA over the last 10 years, however, wasn't nearly as consistent. Plenty has happened between the Lakers' bookend titles, and many folks did their share, for better and for worse, to shape the NBA in the 2000s.

As we creep to the end, these 10 people had the biggest impact, excluding commissioner David Stern, who puts his stamp on every decade:

10. R.C. Buford

The general manager of the decade helped shape the Spurs into a contending machine throughout the 2000s. Buford has four championships as GM, three this decade. He imported major talent from the Draft without using high picks, stealing Tony Parker at No. 28 in 2001 (two years after Manu Ginobili came at No. 57) and DeJuan Blair at No. 37 last summer.

Plus, the Spurs collected plenty of "missing pieces" along the way: Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Brent Barry, etc. The payroll stays middle-of-the-pack, making the Spurs the best value in the league. Obviously, the R.C. stands for Rebuilding Champions.

9. Allen Iverson

The decade began with the Sixers trying to dump Iverson; they nearly had a deal with Detroit. Instead, Iverson stayed in Philly, led the Sixers to the championship round and became an NBA cultural icon in the process.

He's had that kind of love/hate relationship within the league; the NBA once air-brushed his tattoos for PR reasons. At least there's no denying the connection between Iverson and young fans, which helped the NBA tap into a new generation, as the Bird-Magic-Erving old-school devotees began to fade. Quite fitting, Iverson will end the decade back in Philly after wearing out brief welcomes in Detroit and Memphis.

8. Steve Nash

Imagine: A small white player raised in Canada managed to awaken two NBA teams and bring back the fast break. Nash has done everything except win a championship, his best chance denied by Robert Horry's body check in the 2007 playoffs.

Along with Dirk Nowitzki, Nash rescued the Mavericks from basketball oblivion, then signed with the Suns and turned them into the most entertaining team in the league. Along came two MVP awards, putting him in exclusive company with Russell, Bird, Magic, Kareem and a few others who were awarded in consecutive years. While the league sometimes struggled to attract new fans in the post-Jordan era, Nash's teams were always worth the price of admission.

7. Larry Brown

The entire decade perfectly sums up his career. Brown coached four teams, won one NBA title and went to the NBA Finals with another. The Sixers had one star, the Pistons none, and yet both flourished under Brown. Eventually, as he usually does, Brown found another job. His resume this decade also includes a disastrous and forgettable one-season stint in New York, where the Knicks delivered the worst season in NBA history, all things considered. Most coaches would never recover from winning 23 games with a $100-million payroll. But most coaches aren't Brown, now teaching in Charlotte.

6. Isiah Thomas

In one sense, he got a bad rap: The demise of the Knicks predated his arrival. Still, the tumble was hastened during his stay as general manager and coach from 2003-08. The Knicks kept their results low and payroll high and denied the league a visible winner in the largest and most important market in sports.

They're still digging out from the rubble caused by his decisions and will finally have salary cap space next summer for free agents. Isiah's signature move was trading for and entrusting his reputation in Stephon Marbury, a disaster on many levels. Had Isiah began a rebuilding process at the start, instead of adding contracts, he might still be in charge.

5. Phil Jackson

The winningest coach this decade is on his second stint with the Lakers, which may end up being as satisfying as his first. He put Shaq and Kobe on the same page and won three championships, and when they were no longer compatible, Jackson won another with just Kobe. Jackson also passed Red Auerbach on the all-time bling list and perhaps, in the minds of many, settled all arguments regarding "best coach ever."

4. LeBron James

He has lived up to the pre-hype, which is amazing considering his high school games were nationally televised and kept scalpers busy. The King quickly established himself among the top three players in basketball, yet sits alone in terms of marketing and endorsements. It also helps that, aside from nit-picking incidents (refusing to shake hands following his 2009 playoff ouster), LeBron has remained clean and worth the massive idolization. His tour next summer as a free agent will be bigger than U2's.

3. Shaquille O'Neal

He won championships with Kobe, then went to Miami and won a championship with Dwyane Wade. He meant that much to both players. His skills are eroding fast as the decade comes to a close, but for about half of the 2000s, no player carried more clout. Until LeBron came along, Shaq was the face and personality of the NBA, as a massive, playful giant with appeal to all ages.

2. Tim Duncan

Took control of the Spurs following David Robinson's retirement and kept the franchise moving in the right direction. Brought fundamentals back to the position, and championships to the Spurs, even if he couldn't put millions more viewers in front of TV sets during the Spurs' dominance early in the decade.

1. Kobe Bryant

Not quite Magic, not quite Bird and not quite Jordan, but for overall impact on the game, Kobe rules the decade. He began it as a teen idol who made basketball cool. His image took a hit after legal problems in Colorado. And then, in large part because his basketball skills are so supreme, he recovered it all: endorsements, box office and another title, his fourth this decade.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.

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