It's been a good year for the NBA, all things considered. Players, for the most part, kept out of the headlines for off-the-court problems. The playoffs, as usual, were filled with good games and this time the top two teams from each conference, both with pure-bred pedigrees, made the finals attractive for even casual basketball fans. A group of stars embodied the spirit of the Olympics to return the gold to the United States.
It's not all been perfect, of course. One of the league's referees was sentenced to prison for not having as much integrity as all would have expected. The financial crunch that has hurt many businesses worldwide hit the NBA, with the league offices being forced to incur layoffs and teams having to tighten their belt straps. And coaches, it seems, have become as disposable as Kleenex.
But overall, 2008 will go down in history as one of the good years for the NBA. Here is one person's opinion of the top 10 stories from around the Association this past year:
1. Rebirth of the Celtics.
The most storied franchise in NBA history had, frankly, become a bit of a joke. Boston went 24-58 during the 2006-07 season, which included an 18-game losing streak. They finished with the second-worst record in the NBA.
But then a couple of old Celtics from the franchise's 1980s heydays got together to change all of that. This time it was power forward Kevin McHale assisting guard Danny Ainge. McHale, in his position as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, sent star forward Kevin Garnett to the Celtics in a trade with Ainge, the general manager of the Celtics.
Ainge also acquired veteran shooting guard Ray Allen in a trade with the SuperSonics without giving up All-Star Paul Pierce, and suddenly Boston was back in the basketball championship business.
The 2007-08 Celtics completed the biggest turnaround in NBA history, finishing the regular season with a 66-16 record. They had some struggles in the early rounds of the playoffs, but managed to win the conference title where their longtime arch-rivals, the Lakers, represented the West in a series made in a television executive's dreams.
While the Lakers were a slight favorite, the Celtics showed they were the better team, downing L.A. in six games. The clincher was over by halftime, as Boston coasted to a 131-92 victory.
And then, just to prove that last season was no fluke, the Celtics have been even better so far this year. With young point guard Rajon Rondo coming into his own alongside his three superstar teammates, Boston won a franchise-record 19 consecutive games before finally losing on Christmas to the Lakers.
2. The "Redeem Team"
After being embarrassed in two straight Olympiads, the United States was determined to win back the gold medal. The key to doing that was to actually put a team together rather than just a bunch of talented individuals.
Under the direction of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. meshed into an outstanding unit, built for the international game with only one true center, Orlando's Dwight Howard, on the roster. The team included plenty of do-everything wingmen like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony who all played selfless basketball in helping their country go undefeated in both the preliminary and medal rounds. Two Utah Jazz players, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, were on the roster, with Williams being a key contributor off the bench and Boozer staying positive despite limited playing time.
International NBA players also represented their countries well at the Olympics, like Pau Gasol (Spain), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Yao Ming (China), Andrei Kirilenko (Russia) and many others. Overall, it was a good tournament for the NBA's image worldwide.
3. Big trades
There was a time in the not-so-distant past where NBA teams were reluctant to make major in-season deals, instead hoping to better their teams through free agency and the draft.
But 2008 was different. Several major deals when down before the trade deadline in February and the swapping has continued this season as well.
It got started when Memphis sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers for, among others, the draft rights to his younger brother Marc. Pau Gasol instantly made a good Lakers team the overwhelming favorite in the West.
Then Miami shipped the game's most dominant center, Shaquille O'Neal, to Phoenix for All-Star forward Shawn Marion. Then veteran point guard Jason Kidd was dealt to Dallas, with the key for New Jersey being Devin Harris.
This year's biggest deal saw veteran All-Star guards change places, as Allen Iverson was swapped by Denver for Detroit's Chauncey Billups.
4. Coaching changes
Fourteen. That's how many teams have new head coaches since the end of the 2007-08 season. In other words, nearly half the NBA franchises have coaches that can count their tenure in their current assignments in months or days rather than years.
Eight coaching changes were made during the offseason, which isn't that unusual. What's crazy is that six teams fired their coaches that started the 2008-09 season before Christmas. Gone are Oklahoma City's P.J. Carlesimo, Washington's Eddie Jordan, Toronto's Sam Mitchell, Minnesota's Randy Wittman, Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks and Sacramento's Reggie Theus.
5. The coaching exception
Utah's Jerry Sloan is the exception that proves that coaching with any given team in the NBA is a short-term experience. The Jazz's boss on the court has been with his club now for more than 20 years with 1,000-plus victories to show for it.
And he's not going anywhere anytime soon, either.
6. Seattle loses its Sonics
After 41 years the NBA no longer has a franchise in Seattle. Goodbye SuperSonics, hello Thunder.
Seattle retained the rights to the SuperSonics name and a new team could end up there someday. Still, it's been a bitter pill to swallow for Washington's basketball fans.
But at least Seattle didn't give up a good team. Oklahoma City inherited a young group that, quite simply, isn't very good yet despite the presence of 2008's Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant. The Thunder, through Friday, are a league-worst 3-27.
7. Ref gets more than a technical
NBA referee Tim Donaghy was convicted for his part in a gambling scandal in one of the darkest hours in league history. He began serving a 15-month sentence in September.
NBA commissioner David Stern said right from the start that Donaghy was a single "rough official" and that he believed his other referees did not take part in any insider information or point-shaving activities. A large-scale investigation seems to indicate that Donaghy was, indeed, the only referee who was involved.
8. LeBron sweepstakes head up
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James will become a free agent in 2010. Already, teams are clearing cap space in an attempt to lure him away from Cleveland.
The Knicks seem to be the most aggressive suitor. They cleared more than $27 million off their payroll for the 2010-11 season by trading Jamal Crawford to Golden State and sending Zach Randolph to the Clippers.
9. East catches up to West
The Western Conference saw all eight playoff teams win at least 50 games in 2008, partially because it beat up on the East, as usual. Western teams have won the majority of their games against the East every year since the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign.
That's not the case anymore, however. Through Friday night's games, the East has an 89-68 lead this year in head-to-head contests between the two conferences. Utah has been particularly bad against the East this season, going just 5-11 thus far. By comparison, the Jazz are 13-2 against the West.
10. Kobe's been forgiven
Lakers star Kobe Bryant has been one of the top players in the NBA for more than a decade, but he had never really been fully embraced by his teammates, the media and the public at large, especially after being charged with rape in Colorado in 2003 in a case that was eventually dropped. Bryant was also seen as the bad guy by most non-Laker fans in the nasty breakup that sent Shaquille O'Neal to Miami.
But 2008 was a good year for Bryant's image. Thanks to his undeniable skills on the court and his seemingly being a better teammate than ever, he was voted the NBA's MVP by the media. It was an honor he probably had deserved several times before, but had never received.
Then he came across as a genuinely good guy who was enjoying every minute of his Olympic experience in China. He showed up at other events to cheer fellow Americans on, was treated like a rock star by the Chinese and played selfless basketball in helping the U.S. earn the gold.It appears that Bryant has grown up or he's learned to be better at public relations on and off the court. Or both.