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Ten decisions that have shaped the course of the 2008-09 NBA playoffs


Decisions, decisions. Can't live with 'em, can't thrive without 'em.

Some are easy: Paper or plastic? Regular or decaf? Aisle or middle seat on Air Veal? Some are tough: Fries or fruit? Allocate a portion of my IRA to stocks again or tote the cash in a trash bag to the north woods for kindling? And some are so slack-jawed simple as to feel tricky, making you peek for the hidden cameras: Subscribe, plug quarters into an honor box each morning or read it all online for free?

The lords of the NBA are no different from you and me, except maybe for the six-car garages, and they run a gauntlet of rigorous decisions each and every season. Oh, sure, they flip coins to break certain ties and they let a hopper of Ping-Pong balls determine job security and the balance of power in their league for generations at a time. But before and after that, the bosses of the 30 teams (in no particular order) sweat out, agonize over, impulsively leap to and beat themselves up for an unending string of decisions. There's really no pattern to it -- some made in July only pay off in June, others bring regret within 24 hours -- which is why we're here.

This is a look back at the decisions in or immediately before the 2008-09 season that got us to the point we're at, in terms of the current NBA playoffs snapshot:

1. Nuggets acquire Chauncey Billups.

In November, the Nuggets unloaded highly paid sticky-wicket Allen Iverson and got back Billups, a real All-Star-caliber point guard to impose some order and sanity on coach George Karl's attack. Billups had a happy homecoming back in Denver and was rejuvenated on and off the court. The Nuggets won their division, nailed down the No. 2 seed in the West and have a good chance to reach the second round for the first time since 1994. (Houston is in a similar position -- to advance in the playoffs for the first time in years -- in part because of its daring trade for Ron Artest.)

2. Tony DiLeo gets chance as 76ers coach.

After taking over for Maurice Cheeks in December, DiLeo -- the loyal and long-serving organization man -- guided the Sixers to a 32-27 finish, winning more games than the other midseason replacement coaches and at a better clip than all but the Suns' Alvin Gentry (18-13). He turned the loss of star forward Elton Brand into a positive, cranking up the team's tempo and supporting a star-free climate. He nurtured young guys such as Thaddeus Young and Marreese Speights without threatening more established players. He maintained his cool, especially during games, when players play and DiLeo's assistants contribute liberally.

3. Lakers stand pat with Lamar Odom.

Nah, Odom didn't like his projected role last fall as sixth man, and deep down, he probably isn't thrilled about it now, either. But having Odom around when Andrew Bynum again crumpled to the court proved to be a pretty handy thing, didn't it? And even in his dissatisfaction with not starting, Odom never rated more than a 4 on the scale by which Iverson would rate a 10 as a sixth-man malcontent. (Other players wisely not traded away before or during this season include Philadelphia's Andre Miller, Dallas' Josh Howard and Chicago's Kirk Hinrich.)

4. Cavaliers flip the keys to Mo Williams.

It wasn't just adding Williams to the Cavs' roster as one more potential scorer to pull defenders away from LeBron James. It was allowing, even encouraging, the veteran addition to play his game and run Cleveland's attack, freeing up James more than ever in that offense. Would we all be as high on the Cavaliers' chances for a title if they were still playing like the '07 edition, with James pounding the ball and four others getting out of his way? Getting someone to set him up more often has made James more effective than ever at setting up the other guys.

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5. Bulls roll the dice with Ben Gordon.

Agreeing only to a one-year tender offer for $6.4 million with Gordon ranks as a swell decision by Chicago, which lately has been getting the fifth-year guard as the big-time and big-game scorer most folks thought he could be. It ranks as an even better decision by pending unrestricted free agent Gordon, who left himself at risk when he turned down the Bulls' earlier offers but now is creating a market for his services -- ideally, right there in Chicago -- in these tough entrepreneurial times. Having forward Luol Deng, who did get paid by the Bulls ($80 million for six years), sitting over in a suit during this thrilling first-round series with Boston makes Gordon's case even stronger.

6. Coach Mike Woodson given more time in Atlanta.

Woodson's job has hung by a thread at several points in the past, requiring Jack Bauer-like resiliency more than once. Still, he nudged the Hawks' victory total from 13 (in '04-05) to 26 to 30 to 37, with the bonus last season of that seven-game clash with the eventual champion Celtics. This season, Woodson steered Atlanta to a 10-game improvement, not easy once you hit that middle ground: At 47-35, the Hawks snared the No. 4 seed in the East and home-court advantage in the first round. Yet he continues to serve at the pleasure of a general manager, Rick Sund, who did not hire him, always a precarious position for a coach. You wonder if an elimination by the Heat would give the Hawks an excuse they might be looking for.

7. Mavericks learn to trust J.J. Barea.

Let's just put it this way: Would you have? Seriously? An undrafted guard from Northeastern University? Barea, counted on now by Mavs coach Rick Carlisle for his penetration and activity, has averaged 10.0 points against the Spurs so far, with 18 assists to three turnovers. And the formula through four games, facing San Antonio's great Tony Parker, has been this: When Barea plays at least 25 minutes, the Mavs win.

1. Celtics say bye-bye to James Posey.

You can credit the Celtics for being fiscally responsible and not giving that fourth guaranteed year to Posey, who will be 35 by the end of the deal he signed with New Orleans last summer. But letting Posey go at that price wasn't the same thing as finding a suitable replacement at a more affordable rate. Ditto for veteran big man P.J. Brown. While it was logical that certain young Celtics -- Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Glen Davis, Tony Allen -- would improve, it's asking a lot for them to get as seasoned and savvy in one calendar year as Posey and Brown were. Besides, Boston still doesn't have the kind of lockdown defender that Posey, at his best, could be. The Celtics needed to be more active recruiters than they were last summer. (New Orleans doesn't get many props just for signing Posey, not after its miscalculation with trading/not trading Tyson Chandler.)

2. The Heat deal Shawn Marion for Jermaine O'Neal.

There sure was a lot of high-priced and high-profile beef on the hoof in that and the preceding deal (Shaquille O'Neal for Marion), but the overall impact on the Heat was slight. Miami was a team before the Toronto trade that was going only as far as Dwyane Wade's will and health would take it, and the Heat remain that today.

3. Suns hire and fire Terry Porter.

C'mon guys, one or neither, OK? Porter didn't change what he was selling when he took the job -- he came in with an understood mandate to push a defensive agenda and to hold Suns players accountable in ways they hadn't been in recent times. The roster already was something of a muddle, though, and the withdrawal pains from abandoning Mike D'Antoni's offensive style evidently hurt too much. Then certain players got incorrigible, and Porter -- whose offseason hiring momentarily looked like job security as head coaching heads rolled around the league -- found his shiny pate on the chopping block.

Gentry went down more smoothly with the players and the Suns finished 18-13 on his watch, but their defense was as porous as ever, which is where this all got started. And the really unfortunate thing is, while Phoenix was focused on Dallas as the team to chase for the final West playoff spot, Utah was backpedaling its way within range, an opportunity lost.