The Best and Brightest of the NBA's Season
Thursday, April 20, 2006; 10:54 AM
The regular season comes to a close tonight and what have we learned? That the dress code was the most overblown non-story of the season. That thanks to Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Allen Iverson men don't have to be ashamed to wear tights anymore -- until next season when the league cracks down and begins fining players for embracing their inner ballerina. And, that the league was too concerned with dress codes and tights to actually make a playoff seeding system that makes sense.
Not much changed from the preseason, when many predicted a rematch of the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The Pistons made a brief run at 70 wins before they got bored with being too far ahead of the pack. The Spurs tied a franchise record for wins with the Desperate Point Guard, Tony Parker, leading the way but looked less than imposing with Tim Duncan and tazmanian devil Manu Ginobili limping through much of the season.
The New York Knicks crashed and burned in one of the greatest fiascos in the history of sports. How the highest paid team in the NBA -- by more than $20 million -- coached by a Hall of Fame coach could possibly finish with the league's second-worst record is unthinkable. Can you imagine the New York Yankees stockpiling talent and finishing with a worse record than the Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates? That's exactly what happened in New York, where the team president (Isiah Thomas) was sued for sexual harassment, the Hall of Fame head coach (Larry Brown) feuded with the star (Stephon Marbury), the star feuded with his teammates, his teammates feuded with the Hall of Fame coach and each other, the owner (James Dolan) said winning wasn't an "integral" part of the plan, and losses mounted until the Hall of Fame coach got sick to his stomach.
Pat Riley stepped down from his office above the Miami Heat practice court to start running practice again as head coach after family man Stan Van Gundy resigned. The manchild LeBron James took another step toward earning the crown as King when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers into the postseason for the first time in eight years. Kobe Bryant provided the season's signature moment when he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, a remarkable feat when you consider the Raptors are an actual NBA team. Ron Artest had his annual meltdown and sabotaged the Indiana Pacers once again when he demanded a trade in December and had his wish granted in January. He then single-handedly turned the stale Sacramento Kings into a dangerous playoff team and helped Shareef Abdur-Rahim end the longest futility streak in the NBA and advance to the playoffs for the first time in his career. The Pacers, on the other hand, crumbled in the second half of the season and barely made the playoffs in the worse-than-anticipated Eastern Conference.
The D finally arrived in Dallas as the Mavericks won 60 games -- good enough for the fourth seed in the wacky Western Conference, where only teams with winning records make the playoffs (are you taking notes, East?) and the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers will have homecourt advantage in the first round against the Northwest Division champion Denver Nuggets because of a bizarre glitch in the NBA's playoff seeding. (The three division champions are awarded the top three seeds regardless of record and if a lower seeded team has a better record than the division champion, it will have homecourt advantage in the playoffs). Hard to pinpoint what was crazier, having to explain the seeds in the West or writing that the Clippers were in the playoffs.
But enough of the lame rehash. Here are the postseason awards.
Rookie of the Year
Chris Paul, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
In last summer's NBA draft, Paul was passed over by three teams -- four if you count Portland, which traded down -- and landed in the laps of the Hornets, who desperately wanted him all along. He was the classic pass-first point guard, who focused on making his teammates better, sharing the ball and taking over games offensively on an as-needed basis. The Hornets have had to overcome so much this season after Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave their home in New Orleans and seek refuge in Oklahoma City. Paul simply formed a solid fan base in two cities, giving both home towns a reason to cheer, as he kept a Hornets team that won 18 games last season in playoff contention until the final month of the season. He averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists in rookie campaign that rivaled many of the all-time greats at his position -- Jason Kidd, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy.
Runners-up: Charlie Villanueva, Toronto Raptors; Raymond Felton, Charlotte Bobcats
Coach of the Year
Avery Johnson, Dallas Mavericks
Not an easy choice with Flip Saunders taking over for Larry Brown and leading the Pistons to a franchise record in wins, Phil Jackson guiding a mediocre Lakers team into the playoffs, Mike Dunleavy changing the Clippers' culture of losing, Byron Scott leading what many considered one of the worst rosters in the league into a playoff contender for most of the season and Mike D'Antoni keeping Phoenix among the league's elite despite bringing in seven new players and losing Amare Stoudemire for practically the entire season. That being said, the choice is Avery Johnson, who brought a defensive mindset to the Mavericks in his first season in Dallas. Once a high-scoring team deficient in defense, the Mavericks have shown the ability to lock down opponents on occasion this season. Johnson was able to maximize the talents of players such as DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier and Adrian Griffin, and he kept the Mavericks in contention for the league's best record for most of the season despite being ravaged by injuries. Plus, is there a better post-game interview in the NBA?
Runners-up: Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix Suns; Byron Scott, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets