7 POSTSEASON HONORS
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER:
Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers The rivalry between Bryant and LeBron James for the title of world's best player gets even hotter, but thanks to his team's superior record, Bryant retains the crown.
Runner-up: James, F, Cavaliers
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:
Michael Beasley, F, Heat A matter of supply and demand: Beasley provides scoring to a team that desperately needs it.
Runner-up: Greg Oden, C, Trail Blazers
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Kevin Garnett, F, Celtics At 32, KG continues to set the standard for the league's top defensive team.
Runner-up: Ron Artest, F, Rockets
SIXTH MAN AWARD
Lamar Odom, F, Lakers Reluctant to accept this new role, the versatile Odom quickly finds that he thrives in it.
Runner-up: Ben Gordon, G, Bulls
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER:
Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers To restore its defensive backbone, Los Angeles turns to a 21-year-old 7-footer—and he delivers.
Runner-up: Rodney Stuckey, G, Pistons
COACH OF THE YEAR:
Nate McMillan, Trail Blazers Portland makes a big jump in the wins column, earns a playoff spot and develops a D that can key an eventual title run.
Runner-up: Rick Adelman, Rockets
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR:
Kevin Pritchard, Trail Blazers The 41-year-old G.M. has overhauled not only the roster but also the team's image—with cap space left to sign a major free agent next summer.
Runner-up: Daryl Morey, Rockets
6 MAJOR STORY LINES TO FOLLOW
THE ARTEST EXPERIMENT
The Rockets are asking Mr. Volatility, Ron Artest, to provide championship chemistry and be the reliable third star they need to match up with the Spurs' and the Celtics' Big Threes. But who on this roster will coax Artest back in line if he acts up?
ARGENTINE ANKLE WATCH
A healthy Manu Ginóbili is the key to the Spurs' extending their streak of winning every other championship, dating to 2003.
The Cavaliers have to continue to build a roster compelling enough to entice their own star to stay past the summer of 2010.
SAD DAYS IN THE DESERT
While coach Mike D'Antoni takes his exciting Seven Seconds or Less attack East to the Knicks, Suns starters Steve Nash (35 in February), Grant Hill (36) and Shaquille O'Neal (37 in March) set in the West.
With Tim Donaghy in prison, the NBA is finally promising fundamental reform in its oversight of officials, including posting assignments on the morning of games. But this has to be more than a p.r. initiative; fans have already grown too cynical about the refereeing to be satisfied with anything short of substantive change.
Will any owners be forced to sell their money-draining teams because of cash flow problems?
3 ALL-NBA TEAMS FIRST TEAM
G Chris Paul, Hornets
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
F LeBron James, Cavaliers
F Kevin Garnett, Celtics
C Yao Ming, Rockets
G Deron Williams, Jazz
G Tracy McGrady, Rockets
F Carlos Boozer, Jazz
F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
C Dwight Howard, Magic
G Steve Nash, Suns
G Dwyane Wade, Heat
F Paul Pierce, Celtics
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
C Andrew Bynum, Lakers
8 COACHES WITH A BIG CHALLENGE
MIKE D'ANTONI, Knicks, and LAWRENCE FRANK, Nets
Each must improve his team while the front office reshuffles the roster, laying the groundwork for a run at LeBron James in 2010.
GEORGE KARL, Nuggets
He has to convince his defense-challenged players that they can stop teams without longtime stopper Marcus Camby.
MARC IAVARONI, Grizzlies
He was rumored to be in trouble when he had Pau Gasol and Mike Miller. How can he survive with the West's least-talented roster?
SCOTT SKILES, Bucks
He wants his shoot-first team to make D the priority. Unfortunately, he has no lockdown defenders.
LARRY BROWN, Bobcats
He seems curiously drawn to difficult situations. At least this job will go more smoothly than his last one, in New York.
EDDIE JORDAN, Wizards
What could he do if his guys stayed healthy? We may never know, as Gilbert Arenas begins the year on the sideline.
MIKE WOODSON, Hawks
He earned some goodwill during the playoffs, but with a poor start he'll be feeling heat again.
10 INTRIGUING ROOKIES
GREG ODEN, C, Trail Blazers
Portland's other young talent relieves pressure on him to be a savior. But imagine if he is.
MICHAEL BEASLEY, F, Heat
Questions about his reliability and character take a backseat to his All-Star numbers.
DERRICK ROSE, G, Bulls
His speed is stunning, but his decision-making must improve after just one year in college.
D.J. AUGUSTIN, G, Bobcats
He has the skills to be a steal at No. 9—provided he can survive Larry Brown's boot camp.
DONTÉ GREENE, F, Kings
Size, a vintage shooting stroke and three-point range offset his inexperience.
ANTHONY RANDOLPH, F, Warriors
He's skinny and raw, but his length and open-floor ability could make him a star.
KEVIN LOVE, F, Timberwolves
Kevin McHale coveted his skills, but Love must prove he can complement Al Jefferson.
JERRYD BAYLESS, G, Trail Blazers
He'll be the microwave for Portland's second unit.
ROBIN LOPEZ, C, Suns
His athleticism will enable him to make an impact more quickly than his twin, Brook.
MARIO CHALMERS, G, Heat
Just how important is the NBA's rookie seminar anyway?
6 CONTENDERS LOOKING FOR A GOOD BUY
Either of their big expiring contracts (Wally Szczerbiak, Eric Snow) is likely to be shopped for a costar to help LeBron James reach the Finals.
They could dangle Rasheed Wallace and his expiring $13.7 million deal—and/or another of their starters—to reenergize the franchise.
The champs will seek at least one cost-efficient vet (√† la P.J. Brown last year) to replenish their front line heading into the playoffs.
They need experience and toughness off the bench, and a smart midseason move could make the difference between a title and coming up short.
Having gambled big on Jason Kidd last February, they will be aggressive if a player who could put Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki over the top is available.
Instead of waiting for next summer's free-agent crop, they could package Raef LaFrentz's expiring $12.7 million contract for help this season.
6 GOOD BUYS TO BE HAD
ALLEN IVERSON, G, Nuggets Other expensive teammates could join Iverson and his expiring $20.8 million salary on the market if Denver goes south (as expected).
SHAWN MARION, F, Heat Miami will not move Marion, who is owed $17.8 million in the final year of his deal, unless it receives a major star in return.
MICHAEL REDD, G, Bucks A rebuilding Milwaukee can be persuaded to trade Redd and the $51 million (over three years) remaining on his contract.
VINCE CARTER, G, Nets The declining star is a bad fit on New Jersey's young roster, and a team could get him on the cheap since he's owed an onerous $67 million over the next four seasons.
MIKE BIBBY, G, Hawks A good start by Bibby, who is making $15.2 million in the final year of his contract, could pique interest from a contender seeking short-term help in the backcourt.
THE ENTIRE ROSTER, Knicks Team president Donnie Walsh will take calls from any team about any of his players. Make your best offer! Someone? Anyone?
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