And The Winner Is...
Over the course of an 82-game NBA season (plus playoffs), there are so many significant happenings or performances that never receive the recognition they deserve because of a lack of postseason awards. The NBA pretty much hit the nail on the head with the five player awards (and so did we, I might add) while totally embarrassing itself with the Coach of the Year. Nevertheless, here are some more awards to consider while reminiscing about the year that was.
The '77 Trailblazers Award (Most Surprising Team): Miami Heat
No one saw this team making the playoffs, healthy Dwyane Wade or not. With two rookies playing significant minutes and a rookie coach running the show, this team went from 15 wins a year ago to 43 wins and a #5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The '04 US Olympic Team Award (Most Disappointing Team): Toronto Raptors
The acquisition of J.O. was supposed to give the Raptors the true center and toughness they needed to compete with the East's elite. Instead, they traded O'Neal as soon as they could and finished one game better than the Knicks (4th in the Atlantic). On a positive note, Andrea Bargnani took a big step forward this year, but the Bosh situation kind of puts a damper on that bright spot.
The Steve Nash Award (Most Surprising Player): Rajon Rondo
Nash gets his name on this trophy because, after eight years, no one expected him to suddenly become an MVP-caliber player. If you've watched Rondo since his days at Kentucky, this is similarly unexpected. He went from a role player to a star in such an unbelievably short time. With the Big Three showing their age on occasion, Rondo stepped up and was often the best player in green and white. His final playoff averages: 16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 2.5 steals. While he's still frustrating to both Boston fans and coaches alike, he's a jump shot away from being a Top-5 point guard. Who saw that coming?
The Sam Bowie Award (Most Disappointing Player): Allen Iverson/ Tracy McGrady (tie)
What's more disappointing: when a player can't be what he should be, or when a player suddenly can't be what he used to be? If you believe in the former, then this section should be dedicated to another injury-prone Portland Trailblazer center. Instead, I'm going with these two former superstars. Both players posted terrible averages by their own standards, and both players' teams (in Iverson's case, two teams) were better without them. Considering how fast they fell, it doesn't get more disappointing than that.
The Mike Brown Award (worst coach): Mike Dunleavy, Los Angeles Clippers
Sure they had injuries, and sure they don't have much outside of their top six players. But on paper, this team had 40-win potential. They definitely should have been better than 19 wins. All this falls on Mike Dunleavy's shoulders. He alienated Baron Davis, panic-traded for Zach Randolph, and failed to get his veterans to show up on a nightly basis. They played uninspired, unentertaining basketball, and it's a wonder Dunleavy still has his job.
The Kevin McHale Award (worst GM): Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons
"Quitter" is the only word I can think of to describe Joe Dumars' actions this year. The Chauncey Billups trade was simply inexcusable, especially in hindsight when you see the injuries suffered by the Celtics and struggles suffered by the Cavs in the playoffs. There's a very real possibility that a Billups-led Pistons team returns to the NBA Finals. Stuckey wasn't ready to take the reigns, and Iverson didn't fit. Good thing he cleared all that cap space in an offseason without a single elite free agent.
All "100" Team (Most Impressive Single-Game Performances)
Kobe Bryant vs. New York Knicks - He only played 36 minutes, only dished out three assists, and didn't grab a single rebound. But when you score 61, none of that other stuff matters. He shot 19-31 from the field and 20-20 from the free throw line in a performance that broke Bernard King's Garden record.
LeBron James vs. New York Knicks - Not to be outdone by Bryant, LeBron showed up at MSG next game and put on the best individual performance we've seen in a long, long time: 52 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds. The NBA would later take away a rebound and erase the epic triple-double from the King's resume, but his Wilt-like performance was one for the ages.
Chris Paul vs. Dallas Mavericks - Alvin Robertson is the only guard in NBA history to produce a quadruple-double, but if you like to gamble, I'd bet on Chris Paul to be the next. Against the Mavs, Paul posted 33 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, and 7 steals while shooting 50% from the field. To prove it wasn't an aberration, he put up 27 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, and 7 steals against Philly six games later.
Dwyane Wade vs. Chicago Bulls - You no doubt remember the play that won the game (if not, you will in a minute),but you may have forgotten the game Wade had up to that point to put the Heat in position to win: 48 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. He'd put up 50 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds two games later against the Jazz, but it's that game-winner against CHI that gets the nod here.
Dwight Howard vs. Charlotte Bobcats - Howard had an impressive triple-double against OKC this year (30, 19, and 10 blocks), yet that's not the game getting recognized on this list. The more impressive feat? 45 points, 19 rebounds, and 8 blocks on 16-23 from the field and 13-18 from the line against the man who went #2 behind Howard in 2004, Emeka Okafor.
Carmelo Anthony vs. Minnesota Timberwolves - It's his third quarter that forced me to add a sixth man to this list. 33 points. On 12-15 from the field. In one quarter. His record-tying performance erased a 16-point halftime deficit and led the Nuggets to victory. At one point, he scored 26 consecutive points for his team and made nine consecutive field goals in the final six minutes, including four from downtown.
All "How You Like Me Now" Team
Chauncey Billups - Six straight conference finals and a Finals MVP couldn't keep him in a Pistons' uniform. Whatever. Billups became an MVP candidate in Denver and got his seventh straight conference finals appearance anyway.
Trevor Ariza - He couldn't get much run in Orlando, but he's blossoming into a stud for the Lakers. He played a huge role in LA's 15th championship, and it had to feel good beating his former team in the Finals.
Chris Andersen - He only played five games with the Hornets after missing a year plus for violating the League's drug policy, but he's made the most of his second chance in Denver. His 6.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks (2nd in NBA) in only 21 minutes per game were vital in the Nuggets' success this year.
Brook Lopez - Brook was the best center prospect in the 2008 Draft yet inexplicably fell to #10. He responded with an All-Rookie 1st Team performance, averaging 13 points, 8.1 rebounds, and almost two blocks per game in Jersey.
Shaquille O'Neal - Washed up? Hardly. The MDE averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds and made his fifteenth All-Star Game, sharing the MVP award with Kobe Bryant. There's rumors of the Big Fella going to Cleveland. With similar production, he could help LeBron obtain that elusive first title.
Coach Stan Van Gundy - So what he fell short in the Finals? His team simply wasn't good enough. That said, no coach was more overlooked all year than SVG. With his team's playoff run, he screamed "How do you like me now?" louder than anyone on this list. He led the Magic to a Game 7 win in Boston against a tough (albeit shorthanded) Celtics team and dismantled Coach of the Year Mike Brown and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
All-Mulligan Team (players whose teams wish they could do over last off-season)
Elton Brand - Brand is the recipient of the first ever Jerome James Award, which goes to the signing that paid off the least in a given year. He posted career-low averages in only 29 games, and the Sixers were much better with Brand on the sideline.
Gilbert Arenas - It's not resigning him that worries me; it's the amount they spent on a guy that has only started ten games in two years. His absence couldn't even help the Wiz land a top-3 pick despite winning only 19 games.
Baron Davis - The LA experiment clearly hasn't worked out. The Clippers can turn this around if they 1) get a new coach and put Baron on a diet or 2) put Baron on a diet and convince somebody to take him in a trade.
Luol Deng - Deng was deemed more indispensible than Gordon, but it was BG that lead the Bulls in an epic seven-game series against the Celtics while Deng watched in a suit. His production has slipped significantly since the 06-07 season and simply isn't worth what they paid.
Monta Ellis - He got his new contract and promptly ruined the Warriors' season with a single ride on a moped. He also disappointed as a PG, which hurts considering he's the reason they thought Baron was expendable. Now, he's demanding that they don't draft a point guard?
Louis Amundson, after Zach Randolph punched him: "I was getting in his face, but I wasn't trying to kiss him."
Ron Artest, regarding a play in which he fell into the crowd: "Well, I've been in the stands before..."
Charlie Villanueva, via Twitter: "In da locker room, snuck to post my twitt. We're playing the Celtics, tie ball game at da half. Coach wants more toughness. I gotta step up."
(Note: Nothing screams "toughness" like sneaking to post something on Twitter.)
Wyc Grousbeck, Celtics' Owner: "I talked to [Garnett] and he guaranteed the championship in 2010 and 2011."
Dwight Howard, after Game 1 of the NBA Finals: "Hmm...29 percent. But look, J.J was 1-2."
Shot of the Year: Devin Harris's buzzer-beater vs. PHI. Just unbelievable.
Defensive Play of the Year: Chris Andersen's back-to-back-to-back blocks. Excuse the audio delay.
Dunk of the Year: Here are my three finalists...
1. LeBron James Switching Hands in Traffic
2. Gerald Wallace And-1 Alley Oop Over Greg Oden
3. Jason Terry on Anthony Randolph
Move of the Year: Derrick Rose Crossover on Andre Miller
Play of the Year: Dwyane Wade steal and game-winner vs. CHI.
"Only in NY" Moment of the Year
For Knicks' fans, there's a moment every year (or every week) that makes you legitimately question your fanhood. For everyone else, those same moments provide laughter and joy, and no matter how bad you're team actually is, you take solace in the fact you don't root for the orange and blue. Here's 2009's "Only in NY" Moment of the Year, which also happens to be the moment I officially became an Oklahoma City Thunder fan.
In a game in LA against the Clippers, with under a minute to go, Harrington dunked the ball to put the Knicks up three and was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. The Clippers made the free throw and a two-point basket on the ensuing possession to tie the game. Inevitably, they won in overtime. I've never seen an NBA game won or lost on a play like this. Ever. The unbelievable part is that, a month and a half later, the Knicks found themselves in a similarly close game against those same Clippers at the Garden. Al Harrington dunked to put the Knicks up three with under a minute to go, and once again, got called for a technical for hanging on the rim. The Clippers made the free throw and tied the game on the following possession en route to winning in overtime. Can a Vegas odds-maker please tell me the odds of the same player getting called for a technical in the same situation for the same reason against the same opponent resulting in the same outcome? Only in NY.
The acknowledgements only tell a small portion of the story that was the 2008-09 NBA season. And while they don't give out fancy trophies for all the unbelievable (good or bad) things that take place during the course of the NBA season, it's time those plays, players, and coaches finally get the recognition they deserve.
The countdown to the 2009-10 season begins now.
Mike DeStefano can be reached at email@example.com.