After his suddenstar turn for a new team last season, SI's choice was even more impressive as aleading man in 2005-06
The Pistons werehot, Tim Duncan was hurt, Kobe Bryant was back and so too was Ron Artest, whomade more waves on the court than off it. It's time to review the highs andlows of the regular season that was, with the understanding that the best--theplayoffs--is yet to come. But you didn't rent your black ties and evening gownsto hear the emcee prattle on. The envelopes, please....
Steve Nash, Suns
Despite the loss of seven players from last year's 62-win team, includingfrontline colossus Amaré Stoudemire, Phoenix will most likely finish with thefourth-best record, thanks to the heavy load shouldered by its point guard.Nash increased his scoring average by nearly 25% (from 15.5 to 19.2 points atweek's end) and is the only player in the league to shoot better than 50% fromthe field and 40% from beyond the arc. His playmaking has not suffered either.With 10.4 assists per game through Sunday, Nash led the league, and six of histeammates were averaging career bests in scoring, with five of them likely toset personal highs in shooting percentage.
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks.
DEFENSIVE PLAYEROF THE YEAR
Tim Duncan, Spurs
Though his offensive output is significantly down because of a yearlong boutwith plantar fasciitis, the gutsy power forward still ranked in the top 12 inblocks (2.00) and defensive rebounds (8.2) at week's end. San Antonio was theleague's top defensive team and the Western Conference's top seed only becausehe didn't take a month off to heal.
Ben Wallace, Pistons.
ROOKIE OF THEYEAR
Chris Paul, Hornets
The 20-year-old point guard ranked second in steals (2.29 per game), seventh inassists (8.0) and fifth in assists-to-turnover ratio (3.38) through Sundaywhile throwing in a rookie-best 16.3 points per game to keep overachieving NewOrleans in the playoff chase. The wonder is that he slipped to fourth in thedraft; how the Hawks and the Blazers in particular must regret theirmisjudgment.
Charlie Villanueva, Raptors.
COACH OF THEYEAR
Flip Saunders, Pistons
After being fired by the Timberwolves, he appeared to be stepping into afurnace when he replaced Larry Brown. Instead Saunders improved last year'sEastern Conference champs dramatically. How often does a Finals entry make adouble-digit jump in victories? At week's end Detroit was on pace for a 12-winimprovement, an increase trumped by only the Hornets (21) and the Hawks andJazz (13 each).
Avery Johnson, Mavericks.
Mike Miller, Grizzlies
The league's third-leading scorer off the bench, with 13.4 points per gamethrough Sunday, the 6'8" guard has been indispensable to a surprisinglysuccessful team that relies on its reserves as few others do.
Speedy Claxton, Hornets.
Boris Diaw, Suns
Poorly cast as a guard in Atlanta last season, the 24-year-old was moved toforward in Phoenix, where he has overmatched his opponents with his quicknessand skill. Diaw is one of three players--along with LeBron James and JasonKidd--to average more than 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. Some of the6'8" Frenchman's contributions have been less obvious, most notably hislockdown of Yao Ming (six points) on Nov. 23.
Elton Brand, Clippers.
EXECUTIVE OF THEYEAR
Donnie Nelson, Mavericks
Over the last two years he has presided over the emotional departures of floorleader Nash, locker room leader Michael Finley and coach Don Nelson (his dad).The result? The most balanced team in franchise history and, if last Friday'sinspired 92-86 win at San Antonio is any indication, an excellent shot at thefirst Finals berth in franchise history.
Elgin Baylor, Clippers.
The players' dress code Remember the preseason firestorm about their having towear suits or sports jackets on game days? The controversy vanished as theyoung millionaires predictably reveled in dressing fashionably.
Ron Artest's petulant behavior laid waste to yet another season of high hopesin Indy, but his January trade to the Kings for Peja Stojakovic did open thedoor for rookie Danny Granger. A steal at the No. 17 pick, the 6'9" Granger(7.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game) brought some of Artest's tenacity and amuch needed shooter to replace Reggie Miller.
Orlando used the No. 11 pick to draft Fran Vazquez, who refused to emigratefrom the Spanish club Malaga, setting the Magic up for a return trip to thelottery.
In February, Orlando picked up Darko Milicic, the second pick in the 2003draft, and Carlos Arroyo from the Pistons for center Kelvin Cato. Milicic'sperimeter shooting has been a nice complement to the post play of DwightHoward, and he is averaging 4.96 blocks per 48 minutes with the Magic.
Minnesota has lost roughly two of every three games since sending WallySzczerbiak to the Celtics in a seven-player deal that netted Ricky Davis,Marcus Banks, Mark Blount and Justin Reed. None of them will be strong sellingpoints for Kevin Garnett when he weighs whether or not to stay in the TwinCities.
If he hadn't backed out, Larry Brown would be president of the Cavs. Based onthe horrible job he's done as the Knicks' coach, Cleveland should consideritself the luckiest franchise on the face of the earth to have Danny Ferryrunning things instead.
SI's All-NBA Team
F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
F LeBron James, Cavaliers
C Ben Wallace, Pistons
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
G Steve Nash, Suns
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
F Elton Brand, Clippers
C Shaquille O'Neal, Heat
G Dwyane Wade, Heat
G Chauncey Billups, Pistons
F Kevin Garnett, T-Wolves
F Shawn Marion, Suns
C Yao Ming, Rockets
G Gilbert Arenas, Wizards
G Jason Kidd, Nets
THE 5 THINGS WE'LL STILL BE DISCUSSING 5 YEARS FROMNOW ...
1. The breakthrough season of LeBron James (right)
2. Kobe Bryant's 81-point game, thanks to the strictenforcement of the no-hand-checking rule on the perimeter
3. Toronto G.M. Bryan Colangelo's midseason departurefrom Phoenix, which hastened the turnaround of the Raptors
4. Jerry Colangelo's controversial decision to hireMike Krzyzewski as coach of USA Basketball
5. The ultimate failure of the 76ers to build a winneraround Allen Iverson
THE 5 THINGS THAT DIDN'T TURN OUT TO BE BIG DEALSAFTER ALL ...
1. The return of Pat Riley (left) to coaching with theHeat
2. The impact the loss of Joe Johnson had on Phoenix'stitle hopes
3. The feud between Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson
4. The Hornets' ability to adapt to a new home afterHurricane Katrina
5. The Bucks' preseason acquisition of All-Star centerJamaal Magloire
SI'S ALL-UNDER-THE-RADAR TEAM
F Gerald Wallace, Bobcats Only player to average morethan two blocks and two steals a game
F Josh Howard, Mavericks Swiss Army Knife of a playeris West's version of Tayshaun Prince
C Yao Ming, Rockets The skills are well-known, butwhere did his new aggressiveness come from?
G Michael Redd (right), Bucks A rarity: Top 10 scorerhas his best year after signing a max contract
G Joe Johnson, Hawks Easy to disappear in Atlanta, buthe was in top 20 in points and assists