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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Tuesday December 15, 2009 11:06AM; Updated: Wednesday December 16, 2009 10:39PM

NBA: Highlights and lowlights

Story Highlights

The Spurs and Lakers dominated the decade and forged the NBA's best rivalry

Chauncey Billups was the best free-agent signing -- a future Finals MVP for Detroit

The new synthetic basketball, unveiled in 2006, proved to be a short-lived disaster

By Ian Thomsen, SI.com

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duncan-shaq-decade.jpg
Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal spent a good part of the decade battling for supremacy in the Western Conference.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
2000s: NBA
ARTICLES
Thomsen: Highlights and lowlights
Thomsen: All-Decade team
McCallum: 10 signature moments
Montieth: Trades, free agency and the draft
Anderson: WNBA All-Decade starting five
GALLERIES
POLL: Share your thoughts on the decade in the NBA
 

PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
The 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 Lakers
Not 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, Spurs
Buford 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: Lakers
As 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 Warriors
While 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 Lakers
After 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 Hawks
They 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, 2006
After 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, 2004
Rasheed 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, 2002
He 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.

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Jerome James didn't give the Knicks much in return for his $29 million contract.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Jerome James, Knicks; Aug. 2, 2005
New 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 2001
The 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 Angeles
Trying 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.

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