Posted Dec 22 2009 6:40PM
Who will emerge as the signature player of the 2010s? Will LeBron get his ring? Portland or Oklahoma City -- can either squad be the Spurs of the next decade? Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans or Brandon Jennings -- who will break out from that pack? Will Greg Oden ever get healthy? There's a lot to ponder when thinking about what might transpire in the next 10 years. Too bad I'm not ready to move on just yet.
Shaquille O'Neal (center): See MVP section
Tim Duncan (forward): See MVP section
Kevin Garnett (forward): Four first team All-NBA selections, three second teams, 2004 MVP. Who knows -- perhaps by the end of KG's career we might be calling him the second greatest power forward ever.
Kobe Bryant (guard): See Best Player section
Jason Kidd (guard): No point guard submitted a better six-year stretch than J-Kidd's 2000-2005 run. Back-to-back trips to the Finals with the Nets and averages of 16 ppg, 9 apg, 7 rpg, 2 spg.
Dwight Howard (center): Edges out Yao Ming for reaching the Finals.
Dirk Nowitzki (forward): First ballot Hall of Famer that coulda/shoulda been a champion in '06. Only player other than Kobe and Duncan to make either first, second or third team All-NBA every year of the decade.
LeBron James (forward): Had he entered the league earlier than 2003, he'd have challenged KG for a spot on the first team.
Allen Iverson (guard): I refuse to allow the past two seasons to dim the shine and luster of a great career/decade.
Steve Nash (guard): His back-to-back MVPs are impressive, but I have problems with them (see the MVP Recalls section below). With that said, I wouldn't have a problem with anyone sticking Nash on the first team.
If I were to think of this in terms of a hypothetical 12-man team, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony would edge out Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Chris Webber for the final two spots.
Shaq dominated the first half of the past decade as the King Maker. The prevailing thinking was that, any team that had Shaq could conceivably be considered a favorite to win the championship. So, for instance, if the 23-win Vancouver squad hypothetically traded Big Country Reeves for Shaq in 2001, Vancouver would have been a serious contender. And you know what? A squad with Shaq, Mike Bibby and Shareef Abdul Rahim would have absolutely been a dangerous team in the playoffs, specifically since the Lakers wouldn't have been a juggernaut with Young Kobe's second banana cycling through Robert Horry, Rick Fox or Derek Fisher on any given night. And we saw how Shaq shifted the balance of power when he left Hollywood for South Beach.
But Tim Duncan gets the nod here for one salient reason -- his run as the undisputed franchise player for the Spurs lasted ten years. No one was more valuable than Shaq when Shaq was at his peak, but by the 2005-2006 season, Shaq was already ceding the Heat franchise to Dwyane Wade, who won the 2006 Finals MVP with about as clear of a consensus as you can get. Meanwhile, every 50-plus win Spurs squad and every championship brought back to San Antonio was a Tim Duncan thing. In the '00s, no other player led a contender anywhere near as consistently as Duncan.
I recognize that Steve Nash was the most important cog of a 62-win team in '05, but his 16 ppg, 12 apg was no match for Shaq's 23 ppg, 10 rbg, 2 bpg and the fact that -- as we discussed in the MVP section -- he single-handedly shifted the balance of power in the league. Shaq came to South Beach and fashioned the previously upstart Heat into an elite squad. Shaq got the shaft in '05. Then the following season, Nash lead an Amar'e Stoudemire-less Suns team to 54-wins, which was a great and valuable achievement ... if Kobe Bryant didn't do ridiculous things like score 62 points against Dallas in three quarters, 81 against the Raptors and average 43 points for a full month. How Kobe led that Lakers squad -- which heavily featured Chris Mihm, Brian Cook, Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in the rotation -- to 45 wins and took Nash's team to seven games in the first round was the true feat of the season.
2002-03 was a forgettable season for the Lakers. Shaq missed almost 20 games, they finished a mediocre (by their standards) 50-32 and got bounced out of the semis after three straight championships. But this is also a season where Kobe averaged 30 ppg for the first time and initiated the groundswell of "best player on the planet" that basically lasted for the rest of the decade.
I watched the 2001 All-Star Game on NBATV the other day. Classic. The undersized East squad, led by MVP Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen and Vince Carter, upset the loaded West team (KG, Duncan, Kobe, J-Kidd, GP, 'Sheed, C-Webb) with a 111-110 comeback win. The game was an up-n-down, playground affair that was about a 100 out of 100 on the entertainment scale. Lately, though, the All-Star games have been snoozers. Why? Because the point guard play has been so pedestrian. For most of my life, All-Star games have been controlled by maestros like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, J-Kidd, young A.I., Baron Davis and other guards that possess a spectacular flair. As great as Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Tony Parker and the new All-Star guards are, they've yet to give us any exhibition game fireworks. All-Star Game crowds haven't been doing too much ooh'ing and ahh'ing lately. This concerns me.
In reaction to the Shaq-to-Phoenix trade in 2008, I wrote a column for SLAM Magazine entitled "Death to Small Ball" where I said that nothing got under my skin "more than seeing these teams trot out a bunch of undersized lineups under the wack guise of this Small Ball Revolution garbagio."
For a while, Small Ball was supposed to be the new paradigm for success. But teaming the 6-foot-9, 275-pound LeBron James with Anderson Varejao is one thing; expecting Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion to be the five/four combo for a contender is another story. The past 10 championships have had the following big men holding down the paint -- Shaq (2000-2002), Duncan and David Robinson (2003), 'Sheed and Ben Wallace (2004), Duncan (2005), Shaq and Alonzo Mourning (2006), Duncan (2007), KG and Kendrick Perkins (2008), Gasol, Bynum and Odom (2009). Nuff said.
In 2004, about a month after the Lakers were upset by the Pistons in the Finals and with Kobe threatening to bolt via free agency, Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak traded Shaq to the Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, a 2006 first round draft pick they used to select Jordan Farmar and a 2007 second round draft pick. The Kevin Garnett/Al Jefferson trade was huge. The Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson has reverberated. But the Shaq trade was responsible for three very important things. 1) It effectively ended L.A.'s early-decade dynasty. 2) It brought the '06 championship to Miami. 3) And it's is also responsible for what looks to be another Lakers dynasty that could very well dominate the first half of the next decade. After missing the playoffs in '05, the Lakers used their 2005 lottery pick to select Andrew Bynum. About a month later, L.A. traded Butler to the Wizards, getting Kwame Brown in return and we all know Kwame was the principal Laker in the Pau Gasol trade. The snowball effect of the Shaq Trade is huge.
It's difficult to put any performance over Kobe's epic 81-point hurricane in Toronto. But LeBron's 48-point gem in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference semis is my pick because it propelled LeBron James -- the player and myth -- to new heights. The young dude was just 22 years old, propping an overachieving Cavs squad on his shoulders and taking them to battle against the veteran Pistons. Down 2-1 in the series, with any hopes of advancing slipping away, he scored 29 of Cleveland's final 30 points. The Pistons -- known for defense -- couldn't do anything to stop what was nothing less than an athletic tirade. In fact, they seemed frightened, like 'Bron was some hostile extra-terrestrial. At the time, LeBron still dealt with skeptics that weren't sold on his clutchness and his grasp of The Moment. And, well, then that happened.
And what now? Is there an over-arching story, something that, above all else, we should take away from the past 10 seasons? I think so. Something tells me that when David Stern looks at this decade in his rearview, he lets out a "Phew!" and wipes his brow. He really dodged a bullet.
When this decade began, the NBA was in the throes of post-Lockout/post-Jordan blues. The first few years didn't exactly help things. Its signature team (the Lakers) bickered a lot. Perhaps its signature player (Allen Iverson) was incredibly polarizing. Then there were high-profile criminal trials, brawls and fleets of ugly, low-scoring games.
The fact that the league is now in a renaissance period (the new Golden Age -- I call it the Platinum Age) is quite an accomplishment. It's now a league full of stars that, by and large, stay out trouble. The talent pool is historically deep, with almost every team suiting up several players worth watching. There are good teams, with engaged fans in every region of the country. Although the effects of the recession, the possibility of another lockout looming and a recent referee scandal are still issues the league has to contend with, any sane observer would have to say that the NBA is a significantly healthier league at the close of the decade. That has to hearten the Commish.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here or follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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