82 DOWN With the curtain lowering this week on the 2004-05 NBA regular season, here are eight story lines that made this the most compelling such season since Michael Jordan left Chicago in 1998.
Grizzlies Griping -- Over their first four years in Memphis, the Grizzlies have remained remarkably familiar, even as theyve grown into a playoff team under Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello. Shane Battier, Pau Gasol, Jason Williams, Lorenzen Wright, and Stromile Swift represent an all-too-rare quintet of players who have comprised at least half the teams rotation over four full seasons. But this year, grumbling could be heard from within the teams fancy new downtown den. Whether it was Swift taking some extra time for assorted ailments or internal strife between Williams and Bonzi Wells, the feel-good NBA story of 2003-04 became at times that cliche of spoiled me-first professionals fighting for their own interests in 2004-05. Regardless of what transpires in the postseason ahead, a few of these familiar faces will be wearing new uniforms next fall. Swift is almost certain to depart as a free agent. And the guess here is that Williams or Wells may be back, but not both.
Kobes Club -- You gotta hope Kobe Bryant is happy (I guess). Having chased no fewer than four superstars (counting the coach) out of Los Angeles, Bryants biggest victory this season came off the court, when his attorneys negotiated a settlement with the Colorado woman who accused Bryant of raping her in 2003. With the Lakers suffering their first losing season since 1993-94, weve gained some perspective on the mini-dynasty that won three titles earlier this decade. Once and for all, Bryant was Scottie Pippen to Shaquille ONeals Jordan.
Bullish Trio -- In examining the NBA futures market, youd do well to buy some stock in Chicago. With Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, and Ben Gordon -- each 22 years of age -- the Bulls appear to be on the fast track to title contention. (Heres hoping the irregular heartbeat that has sidelined Curry for the postseason is merely a bump in the road.) As long as general manager John Paxson can keep this troika together, the Bulls will be the team to beat in the East when Shaq finally hangs up his work boots.
Malone Mails It In -- Karl Malones midseason retirement has to be the quietest sendoff for a player of his stature in the history of American team sports. While the Utah Jazz have plans to erect a statue to honor the Mailman (one to stand beside that of longtime running mate, John Stockton), the rest of the basketball world slept as the greatest power forward who ever lived hopped into one of his prized 18-wheelers and rode into the sunset. In a sport driven by ego, its remarkable that Malone hung up his sneakers merely 1,459 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbars all-time scoring record. He was named first-team All-NBA a record 11 times (yes, more than Michael, Larry, or Magic).
M Valuable P -- There is no more difficult award to win in sports than the NBAs MVP trophy. Since the Hawks Bob Pettit was given the first honor in 1956, every single winner is either already in the Basketball Hall of Fame or is a mortal lock to be enshrined upon his retirement. For some perspective, you might consider that six members of the origiinal 1992 Dream Team (John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, and Christian Laettner) never earned MVP accolades. Which makes the candidacy this season of Phoenix point guard Steve Nash so delicious. Nash will not be among the leagues top-ten scorers, and hes by no means guaranteed a ticket to the Hall of Fame. But he has well-nigh single-handedly turned a collection of talented losers into a 60-win division champion. In measuring value, Nash edges Miamis ONeal for the hardware.
Minus a Plus in Big D -- And what of Nashs old running mates in Dallas? Unlike the collapse of Shaqs former outfit, the Mavericks have managed to improve even as their former playmaker seizes headlines in Phoenix. With Dirk Nowitzki broadening his already sublime offensive role and Jason Terry taking over the point, Dallas has won more than 50 games for the fifth straight season (one of only three teams to have done so). The defensive-minded Avery Johnson has taken over coaching duties from Don Nelson, so the Mavs may be a dark horse worth watching in the Western Conference playoffs.
Fab Five -- Heres my 2004-05 All-NBA squad. Guards: Steve Nash (Phoenix) and Dwyane Wade (Miami). Forwards: LeBron James (Cleveland) and Kevin Garnett (Minnesota). Center: Shaquille ONeal (Miami).
One short, simple thought for all those who called Jerry West crazy for coming to Memphis three years ago: The Grizzlies are in the playoffs and the Lakers are not.