This was a season of the good, the bad and the immutable. The good was the return of up-tempo team basketball, epitomized by the resurgent Suns. The bad was the brawl in Detroit. The immutable? That one (very big) man can make a (very big) difference. Here we recognize those who stood out in 2004-05. We ask winners to limit their acceptance speeches to 24 seconds.
•MVP--SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, Heat. Put together the collapse of the Lakers (at week's end they were 19 games worse than last year) and the rise of Miami (18 games better), and credit Shaq with a 37-game swing. The Heat dominated the East because the Biggest Big was in the top 11 in scoring (23.0 points per game), rebounds (10.6) and blocks (2.40).
•Coach--MIKE D'ANTONI, Suns. An all-out running system is the hardest thing to teach an NBA team. D'Antoni installed one that enabled Phoenix--picked for 10th in the West by SI--to vie for the league's best record.
•Rookie--EMEKA OKAFOR, Bobcats. Not only was he leading all newcomers with 15.3 points per game through Sunday, but the 6'9" forward from UConn also ranked fourth in the NBA in boards and 13th in blocks.
•Defensive Player--BRUCE BOWEN, Spurs. The 33-year-old swingman is the perimeter version of Tim Duncan on D, shutting down the opposition's most prolific scorers and getting into their heads along the way.
•Sixth Man--BEN GORDON, Bulls. The 6'3" UConn rookie shot 41% in front of the three-point line and behind it. With a league-high 21 double-digit fourth quarters at week's end, he helped turn around callow Chicago.
•Most Improved--LEBRON JAMES, Cavaliers. Bobby Simmons and Primoz Brezec made the leap from fringe player to solid starter, but at 20 James made the hardest jump of all: from rookie to superstar. He'll likely join Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan as the only players to average 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
•Executive--BRYAN COLANGELO, Suns. Hard to recall now that the G.M. was derided for signing free agent Quentin Richardson, who seemed a duplication of the team's other wing players, and for giving a six-year, $60 million contract to 30-year-old Steve Nash. Colangelo empowered D'Antoni to run and solidified his squad with midseason pickups of Jimmy Jackson and Walter McCarty.
•Good Samaritan Award--BILLY KNIGHT, Hawks. Atlanta handed last season's championship to the Pistons by trading them Rasheed Wallace; this season G.M. Knight has probably given the Celtics their first division title in 13 years by sending them Antoine Walker.
•Proudest Star Award--KEVIN GARNETT, Timberwolves. Playing on a bad right knee on a dysfunctional team with no hope of winning a title, Garnett continued to put up MVP numbers without missing a game.
•Making the Best of a Cloudy Day Award--PAUL DENNIS, Maple Leafs. With little to do during the NHL lockout, the psychologist spent the second half of the NBA season counseling volatile Raptors point guard Rafer Alston.
•CPR Award--BARON DAVIS, Warriors. After escaping the execrable Hornets in a midseason trade, the 26-year-old point guard breathed life into the moribund Warriors, who had won eight of 10 games at week's end.
•Fall of Rome Award--JERRY BUSS, Lakers. Amid leaguewide speculation that no star will want to play alongside Kobe Bryant and with an extensive rebuilding process ahead, will the Lakers' owner--the architect of this mess--sell the NBA's most valuable team? ‚ñ†
SI's All-NBA Teams
F Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
C Shaquille O'Neal, Heat
G Allen Iverson, 76ers
G Steve Nash, Suns
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
F LeBron James, Cavaliers
C Amare Stoudemire, Suns
G Ray Allen, Sonics
G Dwyane Wade, Heat
F Shawn Marion, Suns
F Tracy McGrady, Rockets
C Ben Wallace, Pistons
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
G Gilbert Arenas, Wizards
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (OKAFOR)
Okafor gave Charlotte some oomph, while O'Neal (bottom) reversed the fortunes of two teams.
BILL FRAKES (O'NEAL)
[See caption above]