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Eight Hoops Thoughts To End '08

A Daily Babble Production

The calendar year includes the back side of one NBA regular season and the beginning of another sandwiched around a playoff run and a draft.  In the spirit of holiday list-making, we're busting out eight random takeaway NBA thoughts from 2008 today and our picks for nine folks to watch in '09 tomorrow.  Let's make it happen:

8.  Game of the year: Suns-Spurs Game 1.  As incredible as last year's playoffs were, the best game of the tournament was played on its very first day.  A game-tying three (Michael Finley) with less than 15 seconds to play in regulation.  An improbable three from a Hall-of-Famer-to-be power forward (Tim Duncan, who had gone 0-for-4 from deep on the season) to send the game to double overtime.  A super-duper difficult three from a two-time MVP (Steve Nash) to tie it again in the final seconds of double overtime.  And a winning basket scored with less than two seconds to play (Manu Ginobili).  All between two teams who have now met three times in four postseasons and come to really not like each other.  I blew off three or four personal obligations to watch the end of this game, and there is no doubt it was worth it.

7.  Gutsy executives: Remember the 2007 trade deadline, when nothing of import happened and Bill Simmons nicknamed the NBA the No Balls Association?  Not the case in 2008.  Over the last 12 months alone, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Devin Harris, Chauncey Billups, Allen Iverson, Jason Richardson, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Ben Wallace all changed zip codes via trade.  And Mike James, too!  Thus far, I'd hesitate to call anyone beyond the Lakers, Nets and Nuggets definitive winners of all those involved with these moves, but it's always fun to see the stars realigning.

Bonus thought: Going to back to read that Simmons column, I came across the line where the Sports Guy rumbles, "Will Danny be able to parlay Ratliff's contract into something substantial? I'm dubious."  While I rib Simmons (a longtime favorite of mine), I'd be lying if I said I didn't have similar concerns about the Celtics' front office at the time, given some of Ainge's history prior to the ensuing summer.  That said, it's funny how things change.  More on the results of Ainge's handiwork in a bit.

6.  The coaching carousel is spinning out of control.  No matter the much-debated actual importance of coaching in this league, the job isn't an easy one to keep.  Head men in Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, Toronto and Washington all lost jobs since New Year's 2008.  Pat Riley also stepped down of his own volition in Miami.  That's 14 of the NBA's 30 teams, an astounding 46.7 percent of the league.  The Eastern Conference's longest-tenured coach is New Jersey's Lawrence Frank (career .516 winning percentage), promoted after Byron Scott's firing in January 2004.  He's followed closely by Atlanta's Mike Woodson (.352) and the Celtics' own Doc Rivers (.525), both of whom took over at the beginning of the 2004-05 season.  Yikes.

5.  It didn't get the hype of its predecessor, but the 2008 NBA draft class is nothing to sneeze at.  Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo might each be worth the price of League Pass on his own.  Russell Westbrook and Brook Lopez are starting in Oklahoma City and New Jersey.  Eric Gordon has already shown that he can score in bunches.  Mid-first-rounders Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee are all getting plenty of minutes.  Jason Thompson has been a pleasant surprise in Sacramento.  Nicolas Batum, picked 25th overall, and Mario Chalmers (a second-rounder) are both starting for teams with winning records.  Another second-rounder (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) is starting in Milwaukee.  Label me excited to watch this group of youngsters grow in the years to come.

Bonus thought: Congratulations to Team USA for coming together and doing the nation proud with a beautiful performance and a gold medal victory at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

4.  Most disappointing transaction: Baron Davis signing with the Clippers.  In addition to the fact that Davis' freewheeling style hasn't been the greatest fit for MIke Dunleavy's slow-it-down-and-go-through-the-post philosophy, Davis' departure from Golden State also broke up one of my favorite teams to watch in recent memory.  The Warriors still play Nellieball, and they're still fun to watch, but Davis' ability to push the ball and foster all sorts of craziness made him the perfect fit for a wacky team.  His emigration to Southern California along with Monta Ellis' injury-plus-suspension have made me miss the Warriors of a season ago.

3.  Celtic flashback time: Two years ago at this point, the portion of the team not named Delonte West (or, apparently, Gerald Green) was busy complaining about being the only team that had to play on both December 31 and January 1 as the NBA changed the material of its basketballs.  That team was 10-19, without its captain and headed for disaster.  This New Year's, our biggest concern seems to be if the bench is quite good enough on a team that is cruising through the new season (despite some recent road bumps out west) and has just completed a calendar year in which it went 84-28 all-told in 112 regular season and playoff games.  'Tis the season to be jolly indeed.

2.  Kobe Bryant won the MVP in the middle of the year, but six months later, it is LeBron James who has taken over as the best individual player in the game.  As great a player as Kobe is (and there is no denying that he is great), LeBron is just as dynamic a volume scorer, and he is also more efficient, shooting better than 50 percent from the field and posting an absurd true shooting of 59.6 percent.  Unlike Bryant, James can legitimately play four positions (though he spends most of his time at the three and the four for the Cavs), and his physique is unlike that of any other swingman in the game.

James is definitively a better passer and rebounder than Bryant, and the gaps in two of the three areas that once definitively favored Bryant (jump shooting, foul shooting, defense) have begun to shrink.  James' jump shot is still too suspect, and he still needs to push his foul shooting to better than 80 percent, but he has drastically improved to 77.7 percent from the line this year.  While Bryant has been an all-world defender for much of his career, James has made great strides and only continues to get better at that end of the floor.  This season, he is holding opposing small forwards to a 48.3 percent effective field goal shooting (Bryant holds off-guards to 48.2), and he is limiting power forwards to a putrid 41.2 percent eFG.  Bron's Cavs are 6.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor than off it, and Kobe's Lakers are nearly a point better per 100 possessions defensively without him on the floor than on it.  James' leaping ability and length allow him to be a shot-blocking presence anywhere on the floor as well, and he is swatting more than a shot a game.

On top of all that, James took a team to the 2007 Finals literally all by his lonesome. It was also his gargantuan effort that both nearly stopped my heart and nearly pushed the Cavs to victory over the Celtics in the toughest series the eventual champs faced this spring. 

Kobe Bryant is still a phenomenal player and one of the best in the world.  But I can finally say (perhaps belatedly so) that given the choice between the two for the here and now, I'd take LeBron James ahead of Kobe Bryant and be fully confident in doing so.

1.  Your Boston Celtics: 2008 NBA champions.

Happy New Year!

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