PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Tim Duncan, San Antonio SpursThe greatest power forward in NBA history, Duncan was the reason San Antonio became the only team to make the playoffs every year of the decade. He was the most valuable team player of his era, an active defender who chased pick-and-rolls out to the three-point line and yet hustled back to protect the rim and control the boards. Offensively, the Spurs played through him as a passer in the post, and his dependable mid-range jumper off the backboard will be part of his highlight reel when he checks into Springfield.
BEST COACH: Phil Jackson, Los Angeles LakersNot only did he lead the Lakers to six NBA Finals and four championships over the decade, but he also found time to reclaim a damaged relationship with Kobe Bryant to help him become a championship leader -- something that many people believed was irredeemable. No coach gets more done by saying less than Jackson, who enters the next decade with an NBA-record 10 championships overall.
BEST GM: Gregg Popovich/R.C. Buford, SpursBuford did the exhaustive legwork and brought the options to president-coach Popovich, who had final say over all decisions. Together they formed the best management team in the league, maintaining a disciplined payroll over this decade while continuously mixing and matching role players to fit around Duncan, Tony Parker (last pick of the first round in 2001) and Manu Ginobili (a second-round pick in 1999 who debuted in 2002). The Lakers won more championships, but the Spurs claimed three of their own while becoming the third team in NBA history with 10 consecutive 50-win seasons.
Click here for Ian Thomsen's complete All-Decade team
BEST FRANCHISE: LakersAs mentioned above, they won four championships and went to the Finals another two times. Though it seemed an eternity to Kobe, GM Mitch Kupchak spent a relatively quick three years to rebuild a new finalist roster after Shaquille O'Neal was moved to Miami in 2004.
WORST FRANCHISE: Golden State WarriorsWhile the Clippers and Warriors each missed the playoffs nine times out of 10, this award goes to the Warriors on style points. They burned through six coaches, culminating with the decision to hire Don Nelson, who underwent meltdowns with several players after appearing to play a role in the ouster of his GM and friend, Chris Mullin. The shame of Golden State's decade was that it built several promising teams only to see each one self-destruct -- including the inspired No. 8 seed that knocked off the No. 1 Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The Warriors had an energized fan base and a big-spending owner in Chris Cohan, which only made the endless dysfunctionality all the more bitter.
BEST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM:2000-01 LakersAfter winning 56 to edge Sacramento by one regular-season game for the Pacific Division title, Shaq and Kobe demolished all comers -- sweeping the Trail Blazers, Kings and Spurs before losing the opening game of the Finals to the 76ers on a 48-point explosion by league MVP Allen Iverson. O'Neal responded with 28 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists to win Game 2, and the Lakers finished with the most dominant postseason (15-1) in league history. Including the regular season, the Lakers won 23 of their last 24.
WORST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 2004-05 Atlanta HawksThey won 13 games -- the low of any franchise for the decade -- while ranking 28th in scoring, 29th in points allowed and 29th in attendance. They started 19-year-old forward Josh Smith straight out of high school, they packaged Antoine Walker in a midseason trade to Boston for a future first-rounder, and that June they bypassed point guards Deron Williams and Chris Paul to draft slow-starting Marvin Williams with the No. 2 pick. But they used their cap space wisely that summer to acquire future All-Star Joe Johnson, who has joined with Smith and Williams to turn the Hawks into a home-court playoff team in the East.
BEST REGULAR-SEASON GAME: Suns-Nets; Dec. 7, 2006After 34 lead changes and 21 ties, Steve Nash's visiting Suns prevailed 161-157 in double overtime. "That's the best game I have ever seen," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. Nash scored nine of his career-high 42 points in the second overtime, while Jason Kidd produced a triple-double of 38 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. There were 17 lead changes and eight ties alone in the fourth quarter, when Nash hit an overtime-forcing three at the end of regulation. Kidd saw his game-winning jumper hop in and out at the first overtime buzzer.
BEST POSTSEASON GAME: Lakers-Kings, Game 7, 2002 Western Conference finals Because these were the league's two best teams, this was viewed as a winner-take-all game for the championship (the Lakers went on to sweep the Nets in the Finals). "The Kings were the better team tonight, they deserved to win, but somehow we did,'' Phil Jackson said after the Lakers' 112-106 overtime victory in Sacramento. The Lakers trailed in the last minute of regulation and the final two minutes of overtimebefore finishing off the most exciting postseason series of the decade. Shaq (35 points and 13 rebounds) and Kobe (30 and 10) combined to play 102 minutes to overcome a clutch performance by Kings guard Mike Bibby (29 points).
Click here for a gallery of the top 10 games of the decade
BIGGEST TRADE: Shaq from the Lakers to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, a first-round pick and a second-round pick; July 14, 2004Rasheed Wallace (to Detroit), Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (to Boston) and Pau Gasol (to the Lakers) all delivered championships this decade, but no trade triggered a bigger two-way impact than the blockbuster that ended the championship run in Los Angeles while delivering a title to the Heat. Within two years, Shaq's enormous paint presence liberated Dwyane Wade to attack the basket and lead Miami to the 2006 championship, yet the move also had lasting impact for the Lakers as Odom would eventually help Kobe win a championship in 2009.
BEST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Chauncey Billups, Pistons; July 17, 2002He was viewed as a journeyman, a disappointing No. 3 pick of the 1997 draft who had passed through five franchises in five years. Then the Pistons signed Billups to a six-year, $34 million mid-level contract starting at the relatively frugal salary of $4.5 million. He fit in with their aggressive physical style while transforming himself into a four-time All-Star and MVP of the 2004 Finals.
WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Jerome James, Knicks; Aug. 2, 2005New York used its mid-level exception to sign the 7-foot-1 center to a five-year, $29 million deal. James was a notorious underachiever who -- in pursuit of a new contract -- had averaged 4.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in 80 games for Seattle in 2004-05, culminating in an opening-round playoff series in which he managed an illusory 17.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. In the next four seasons, James provided 2.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.0 fouls in 90 games, until the Knicks finally dumped him on Chicago last February in a trade for Larry Hughes.
BIGGEST DRAFT STEAL: Tony Parker, No. 28 pick by Spurs in 2001The 6-2 son of an American basketball player in Europe, Parker signed with the French club Paris Racing in 1999 and quickly established his talent. Though he had 20 points and seven assists at the 2000 Nike Hoop Summit in Indianapolis, many NBA scouts did not view Parker as a first-round pick in part because European point guards were deemed incapable of running an NBA team. Parker started 77 games as a rookie and by his second year was winning his first of three NBA championships. In 2007, he was awarded Finals MVP.
BIGGEST DRAFT BUST: Darko Milicic, No. 2 pick by Pistons in 2003.The Pistons were choosing from a position of strength: Not only had they reached the conference finals one month before the draft, but they also held the No. 2 pick based on a 1996 trade with the Vancouver Grizzlies. The Pistons gambled that pick on Milicic, an athletic 7-foot Serb with impressive shooting and passing skills. He was unable to earn significant playing time before Detroit unloaded him to the Magic in 2006. The Pistons' mistake was obscured by the 2004 trade for Rasheed Wallace that resulted in a championship and a run of six straight appearances in the conference finals. But Pistons fans have been left to imagine how many more championships might have been won by choosing Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade, who were the next three picks in that lucrative draft.
Click here for Mark Montieth's views on the decade in trades, free agency and the draft
SIGNATURE PLAY: Robert Horry's buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat the Kings in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals in Los AngelesTrying to protect a two-point lead with two seconds left, Kings center Vlade Divac batted a loose ball far away from his basket -- but the ball went straight to Horry, who drilled a three over Chris Webber at the buzzer. The shot completed a 24-point Lakers comeback and evened the series at 2-2, enabling the Lakers to ultimately win in seven games. "It's the luckiest thing I've ever seen in my life,'' Kings forward Hedo Turkoglu said. "The whole game [Horry] was going for offensive boards, but at that moment he was waiting right there.'' Four times in this decade Horry would make last-minute threes to win playoff games that would contribute to three championships with the Lakers and Spurs.
CINDERELLA: 2003-04 PistonsThey went into the Finals as enormous underdogs against the Lakers and their future Hall of Fame quartet of Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. But the younger, hard-defending Pistons wouldn't let the Lakers get into their offense while converting those turnovers and missed shots into easy baskets at the other end. With Larry Brown urging his group "to play the right way,'' the Pistons became the only team since the launching of the Bird-Magic era to win a championship without an "elite'' star.
BIGGEST CONTROVERSY: The Lakers' 106-102 victory against the Kings in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finalsThe Lakers had a 40-25 edge in free-throw attempts, including a 27-9 advantage in the fourth quarter alone. "Obviously, [the Lakers] got the game called the way they wanted to get it called,'' Kings coach Rick Adelman said after the game. Convicted referee Tim Donaghy would allege that two of the referees conspired to influence a Lakers victory in order to produce a Game 7, a charge vehemently denied by commissioner David Stern.
MOST OUTSTANDING REGULAR-SEASON PERFORMANCE: Kobe Bryant scores 81 points in the Lakers' 122-104 victory against the Raptors; Jan. 22, 2006 The Lakers were trailing 71-53 early in the third quarter when an angry Bryant exploded for a remarkable 51 points down the stretch. He finished 28-of-46 (7-of 13 threes) from the field and 18-of-20 at the foul line to produce a scoring total second only to Wilt Chamberlain's record of 100 points in 1962. Bryant had scored a season-worst 11 points in a victory at Toronto the previous month; this time he scored 55 in the second half to single-handedly win the game. "It was another level,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I've seen some remarkable games, but I've never seen one like that before.''
MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYOFF PERFORMANCE: LeBron James scored the Cavaliers' final 25 points in a 109-107 double-OT victory against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.James finished with a career-playoff-high 48 points -- and 29 of his team's final 30 -- when he scored the game-winning layup with 2.2 seconds remaining in the 58th minute. The Pistons held a seven-point lead at home with 3:15 in regulation before the 22-year-old James began attacking the basket for all of Cleveland's points over the final 12:49. His Cavs would finish off the Pistons in Game 6 to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Click here for a gallery of memorable performances from the decade
BIGGEST VILLAIN: Referee Tim DonaghyThe early leader of this category was Ron Artest after he went into the stands to incite the 2004 brawl at Detroit. But his incident was dwarfed by 2007 news of an FBI investigation alleging that Donaghy had bet on games he officiated and made calls based on the point spread. Donaghy pled guilty to two counts related to the investigation and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. Accomplice James Battista recently told HBO Real Sports that Donaghy helped him win 37 of 47 bets on NBA games, and that he "operated on the assumption that we were going to win.''
BEST TEAM RIVALRY: Spurs vs. LakersThis rivalry didn't generate a great deal of emotional heat, but there is no denying that the Spurs and Lakers measured themselves against one another while sharing seven championships to dominate the decade. The Lakers won four of their five playoff series, including a tightly contested victory in the 2004 Western semifinals that turned on a game-winning shot by Derek Fisher following an inbounds with 0.4 seconds left.
BEST INDIVIDUAL RIVALRY: Shaq vs. KobeThey won three championships and played in four Finals over five years, but not even Phil Jackson could keep Shaq and Kobe together. When O'Neal was dealt to Miami in 2004, the story of Shaq and Kobe turned into a modern-day fable, an updated version of Lennon and McCartney detailing the importance of mutual respect and the need for sacrifice in the pursuit of team goals. As rivals, their reunion games were typically aired on national TV, and in 2009 they shared the MVP award at the All-Star Game.
MOST COLORFUL PERSONALITY: ShaqIn his chameleon role as the NBA's Madonna, Shaq routinely reinvented himself as a movie star, a rapper, a part-time student who earned his degree eight years after leaving LSU, a sheriff's deputy, a break dancer with the Jabbawockeez at the 2009 All-Star Game, a tweeter, an advocate for children's health (as host of the network show Shaq's Big Challenge), an endorser of any number of products and a reality star (as host of Shaq Vs.), in addition to being the dominant center of his generation. Shaq will go down as the only NBA giant to achieve mass popularity during his career.
BEST NEW ARENA: Conseco Field House, IndianapolisOpened in 1999-2000, the Pacers' managed to fit 18,165 seats while maintaining a relatively intimate ambience styled after the traditional fieldhouses throughout the basketball heartland of Indiana. Sadly, it appeared to be half-empty following the Pacers' self-destruction at the 2004 melee in Detroit.
BEST INNOVATION: Zone defensesOutlawed in 1947, zone defenses were reinstated in 2001 by an expert panel headed by Jerry Colangelo. The new rules killed off the dreadful isolation plays that were ruining the NBA, with the result that GMs started looking for shooters instead of defenders while coaches demanded a quicker tempo in hopes of scoring before defenses could set up. Many coaches and team execs were against the changes, but the new rules led to an era of attractive open-court play.
WORST INNOVATION: The new basketballThe NBA inexplicably introduced a new synthetic basketball in the summer of 2006, only to hear players complain that it was slippery and difficult to palm. Suns point guard Steve Nash wore Band-Aids after complaining the friction of the new ball was shredding his fingertips. Why change the ball? Of all the issues facing the NBA, the basketball was the one thing that didn't need fixing. In December 2006, Stern announced that the traditional leather ball was being reinstated.
BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Trail Blazers lose 2000 Western Conference finalsThe Blazers blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter to lose Game 7 to the Lakers. That 89-84 victory led to the first of three straight championships for the Lakers, while two months later the Blazers imploded by trading Brian Grant for overweight Shawn Kemp and dealing 21-year-old Jermaine O'Neal for 31-year-old Dale Davis. Had the Blazers not missed 13 consecutive shots in the final period at Los Angeles, they likely would have won the championship that season (the Lakers went on to beat the Pacers in six games) and remained in contention for years to come. They may never have unloaded Rasheed Wallace, which in turn would have prevented the Pistons from winning their championship in 2003-04. If the Lakers had failed to outscore Portland 31-13 in the fourth, would things have turned out differently for Shaq and Kobe? The events of the decade turned on the outcome of one quarter.
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