We Take ESPN’s 2000s Poll

A few months ago, we took a look at the All-2000s team and some of the other notable issues of the decade.  Now ESPN.com is turning to the end of the decade and has its own poll of its burning questions of the 2000s.  Just for fun, let’s run through our choices, as limited by ESPN’s ballot: 

1)  Which is the franchise of the decade?



We addressed this question in the summer and previously chose the Lakers, even though they weren’t as consistently good (the Spurs average 58 wins per season and the Lakers averaged 53).  The tie breaker was that Spurs never could beat the Lakers when L.A. was at full strength.  The Lakers destroyed the Spurs in the playoffs in 2000-01 and 2001-02, when both teams were at full strength.  The Lakers also upset the Spurs in 2003-04 (on the crazy Derek Fisher shot), as well as in 2007-08, when the Lakers were clearly better. Still, there is some merit to the fact that the Spurs had no lulls like the Lakers did mid-decade.  This is really a coin-flip but the fact that the Lakers were better at their peak makes me choose L.A..

 2)  Which is the team of the decade? 

The choices are: 

-99-00 Lakers (67-15, expected 64-18, SRS 8.41)

-00-01 Lakers (56-26, expected 51-31, SRS 3.74 )

-04-05 Spurs (59-23, expected 63-19, SRS 7.83)

-07-08 Celtics (66-16, expected 61-21, SRS  7.44 9.31) (accidentally put in the 2008-09 SRS)

-08-09 Lakers (65-17, expected 61-21, SRS 7.11) 

The 1999-00 Lakers are the pretty clear choice here.  They have the best player (Shaq at his peak), along with some really good role players, and they dominated on a scale above the rest of the group.  The number are also consistent with my gut inclination that a Kobe/peak Shaq team is as tough a team as you’ll see any time.  The 2000-01 team speaks to that, as the team struggled for a variety of reasons and then turned it on for the playoffs (though the team itself, as a whole, ranks last on the list because of its relatively weaker regular season). The other three teams (Spurs, Celts, and Lakers) are all pretty even but below the 1999-00 squad.  A quick footnote, the 2006-07 Spurs are probably the best Tim Duncan team but are omitted because they had a Finals cake-walk against a young Cavs team, while the 2004-05 Spurs struggled with a tough Pistons squad. 

3)  Who is the player of the decade? 

-Kobe Bryant

-Tim Duncan

-Kevin Garnett

-LeBron James

-Shaquille O’Neal 

In this case, we can knock out LeBron because he hasn’t played the whole decade.  Shaq, the best player of the early decade, has fallen off enough the last four or five years to eliminate him too.  That leaves Kobe, Duncan, and KG, who all have been consistently excellent throughout the decade.  It’s hard to pick against Duncan, who hasn’t really lost a step since the decade began, never created a single problem for his team internally (unlike Kobe) and was a defensive force.  KG is really close to Duncan but TD’s ability to score in the crunch puts him over the top. 

4)  Which is the shot of the decade? 

-Robert Horry’s 3-pointer from the top of the key vs. Kings, 2001-02 playoffs

-Derek Fisher’s in-bounds turnaround jumper with 0.4 remaining vs. Spurs, 2003-04 playoffs

-Devin Harris’ halfcourt shot vs. 76ers, 2008-09 regular season

-LeBron James 3-pointer vs. Magic, 2008-09 playoffs 

I’m not really thrilled with this category because the inquiry is undefined.  Are we going by the pure level of difficulty or does the magnitude of the game matter?  Harris’ shot was the most difficult but it happened in a meaningless regular season game.  I tend to think that the shot of the decade should be memorable and impactful on the season.  The other three shots were all pretty amazing, though none of them clinched a series (and the Cavs actually lost the series).  I’m inclined to go with Horry’s three because it really saved the Lakers from the brink and was made on a helter skelter play and led eventually to a title.  The Fisher was equally big for the Lakers but L.A. ultimately did not win a title.  I know the distinctions we make here are artificial but so is the question. 

Finally, just in case you were wondering, here are my shots of the last few decades: 

1990s:  Michael Jordan’s shot to clinch Game 6 of the 1997-98 NBA Finals

1980s:  Magic Johnson’s hook shot over Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to steal Game 4 of the 1986-87 Finals

1970s:  Jerry West’s half court shot to tie Game 3 at the end of the fourth quarter of the 1969-70 Finals.   Gar Heard’s shot in the 1975-76 Finals is close but not quite as difficult as the West bucket.  Ironically, both teams lost their respective big shot games. 

5)    Which is the playoff game of the decade? 

-1999-00 Western Conference Finals Game 7, Lakers vs. Trailblazers (Lakers rally from 18-down to win and clinch the series)

-2001-02 Western Conference Finals Game 7, Lakers vs. Kings (Lakers rally to win in Sacramento to take the series)

-2007-08 Western Conference First Round Game 1, Spurs vs. Suns (Spurs win in double overtime thanks to Tim Duncan’s three-pointer)

-2007-08 Eastern Conference Second Round Game 7, Cavs vs. Celtics (LeBron and Paul Pierce battle in second half)

-2008-09 Eastern Conference First Round Game 6, Celtics vs. Bulls (Bulls win a triple overtime thriller) 

Again, this choice is entirely subjective.  As with our previous discussion, I think magnitude of the game matters.  This knocks out both first round games, which were great but not nearly as high stakes (no one thought the injured Celts or the Bulls were going to win in the next round and the Spurs/Suns was just a Game 1 of the first round).  Conspicuously absent is Game 5 of the Nets/Pacers First Round series in 2001-02, which was better than both these first rounders.  If you recall, this was a do-or-die game for both teams and Reggie Miller forced overtime with a half court banker and forced double overtime with a dunk in traffic before finally succumbing to the Nets superior depth in the second overtime.  It wasn’t better than the best game of the decade but certainly should’ve been mentioned. 

Turning to the real candidates, the clear winner is Lakers/Kings from 2001-02.  While there were some bad calls in that series, Game 7 was played at a really high level, with the Kings desperately holding on to a lead before Shaq took over.  The Kings started to fall apart down the stretch and in overtime (only Mike Bibby really wanted to shoot at that point) but a title was on the line (they both would’ve beat the Nets) and it was played at high enough a level that I think it edges out the Lakers/Blazers.  In that series, the Lakers struggled and clawed back thanks to defense and some helpful home whistles (Shaq’s blatant hip check of Steve Smith sticks out in my mind).  Cavs/Celts was also fun but Cleveland was not as good as the other teams (it was LeBron’s show only) and the game was a second rounder. 

Again, for fun, here are my favorite playoff series for the 1990s and 1980s (I didn’t really watch the 1970s live so we’ll leave them out): 

1990s:  A lot of great series to choose from but I was really enrapt by Knicks/Bulls in 1992-93 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  It didn’t even last seven games but the level of play was high, emotion and effort was high, and the desperation of Patrick Ewing to get that ring and Michael Jordan to deny him, was more palpable than any series I can remember outside of the Lakers/Celtics/Pistons/Bulls series of the 1980s.  Co-winner is the Pacers and Bulls Eastern Conference Finals, which was also competitive and featured an amazing buzzer beater by Reggie Miller (he did push off MJ a little on the play), and a great Game 7 too.

1980s:  It’s really impossible to choose between the amazing 1980-81 Eastern Conference Finals (Celts coming back to beat the 76ers), the 1983-84 Finals between the Lakers and Celts, the Celtics/Pistons throw downs in 1986-87 and 1987-88, and the Pistons/Lakers Finals in 1987-88.  If forced to choose, I’d go with the Pistons/Lakers Finals but a good argument can be made for all of these. 

6)  Which is the NBA Finals performance of the decade? 

-1999-00, Shaquille O’Neal (38.0 ppg, 16.7 rpg, 2.7 bpg, and 2.3 apg)

-2000-01, Shaquille O’Neal (28.7 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 2.8 bpg, and 3.7 apg)

-2002-03, Tim Duncan (24.2 ppg, 17.0 rpg, 5.3 bpg, and 3.9 apg)

-2005-06, Dwyane Wade (27.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg, and 1.9 spg) 

D-Wade’s dominance in 2005-06 has been somewhat tainted by the copious foul calls.  I think that some the criticism of the refereeing in that series was a little overblown (the Mavs just couldn’t stop Wade under any circumstances).  D-Wade is still bringing up the rear on this list because Shaq and TD were so dominant.  Of the remaining three, Shaq of 1999-00 is the choice.  This was Shaq at his absolute peak, basically the best center we’ve ever seen at the height of his power.  He tossed around Rik Smits and Dale Davis like rag dolls.  He did the same thing to Dikembe Mutombo the next year in the Finals, though the Sixers just weren’t as good a team as the 1999-00 Pacers. 

7)  Which is the nickname of the decade? 

-Agent Zero (Gilbert Arenas)

-The Big Aristotle (Shaquille O’Neal)

-Flash (Dwyane Wade)

-King James (LeBron James) 

Ummm…who gives a crap?  If forced to choose, I only end up feeling silly, and that’s coming from someone who focuses on something as frivolous as the minutia of professional basketball.  I would point out that I rarely think of Shaq as The Big Aristotle.  Nor does the nickname make any sense…sure he’s big…but philosophical?  Similarly, Wade’s real primary nickname is actually the uber-creative “D-Wade,” which is up there with J-Kidd or KG in its dynamic appeal.  King James is occasionally used but is also less invoked than the simple LBJ.  So I guess we have to take Agent Zero, Arenas’ bona fide primary (and ony) nickname as the winner here.  For non-fans, the nickname has some utility in that it also reminds us that, yes, his uniform number is 0 and that he is, in fact, an agent of the Wizards.  Wasn’t that fun? 

8)  Which is the performance of the decade? 

-Shaq’s 61 points, 23 rebounds on his birthday (March 6, 2000 vs. Clippers)

-Kobe’s 81-point game (January 22, 2006 vs. Raptors)

-Arenas’ 60 points vs. Lakers (December 17, 2006)

-LeBron’s 48 points vs. Pistons in 2006-07 Eastern Conference Finals (May 31, 2007) 

I think Arenas’ game can be eliminated at the outset because it was a run-and-gun show in a regular season game but is blown away by Kobe’s game, which draws from the same appeal (scoring machine).  Kobe’s 81 is so ridiculous it’s hard to contextualize but so is Shaq’s 61 and 23, which looks like something from Wilt Chamberlain’s prime.  But there is a hitch to all these great performances.  They were all done in relatively meaningless regular season games: 

-Shaq’s 61 and 23 came near the end of the season against a terrible Clipper team (remember Keith Closs?).   The Clipps were playing out the string on a 15-67 season (worst defensive team in the NBA) and the Lakers were 67-15 and had basically clinched home court for the playoffs.  The side story is that the Clippers, who shared (and still share) the Staples Center with the Lakers, apparently wouldn’t allot Shaq a number of tickets he wanted for his birthday celebration.  He proceeded to destroy the Clipps to make them feel worse about themselves.  Just like the real Aristotle would’ve done.

-Kobe’s 81 was just a great random regular season game.  The Raptors weren’t any good either (27-55 with the second worst defensive rating in the NBA) but 81 points is still damn good.

-Arenas’ 60 points came against a mediocre Laker team (42-40 and 24th in the NBA in defense).  It was a serious high scoring game too (Wizards won 147-141 in overtime).  Arenas’ game was great but given the pace and the overtime, isn’t in league with Kobe and Shaq.  By the way, it is quite odd that all three crazy games happened in the same arena. 

Now we turn to LeBron’s Game 5 against the Pistons in the Conference Finals.  James didn’t score nearly as much as the above player  but the stage of his performance, basically scoring 30 points in a row against a great defensive team in Detroit, towers over dominance against also-rans in the regular season.  Kobe and Shaq have their merits but James’ feat was probably the most difficult and most impressive. 

9)  Which is the NBA Finals of the decade? 

-1999-00 Lakers in 6 over Pacers

-2004-05 Spurs in 7 over the Pistons

-2005-06 Heat rally from 2-0 hole over Mavs

-2007-08 Celtics rally in Game 4, defeat Lakers in 6 

This was not a particularly compelling decade for NBA Finals.  Most series had pretty clear winners throughout the series.  Boston/LA had a chance to be great but the Lakers lost in Game 4 and then were annihilated in Game 6, which killed all potential drama.  Similarly, Lakers/Pacers had competitive moments but seemed over once the Lakers went up 3-1.  This leaves 2004-05, where the Spurs and Pistons wasn’t sexy but very competitive and the 2005-06 series, which went from a Dallas mismatch (up to 2-0) to a Heat mismatch (winning the next four straight to clinch).  The Spurs/Pistons is the clear choice here.  This series was competitive and Game 5 of that series was probably the best NBA Finals game of the decade.  I know some hated watching Detroit and San Antonio but this was pretty good basketball. 

Finally, the Spurs/Nets in 2002-03 probably was as competitive as any series but the Detroit/Spurs.  The Nets got the series to 2-2 and were winning in Game 6 going into the fourth quarter before losing.  It wasn’t a great series but no worse than Pacers/Lakers or Lakers/Celts in terms competitiveness.

10)  Which is the playoff series of the decade?

-1999-00 Western Conference Finals:  Lakers-Blazers (Lakers won 4-3)

-2001-02 Western Conference Finals:  Kings-Lakers (Lakers won 4-3)

-2005-06 Western Conference Second Round: Mavs-Spurs (Mavs won 4-3)

-2006-07 Western Conference Second Round: Suns-Spurs (Spurs won 4-2) 

Some great series here.  The 2006-07 Suns/Spurs was fun but has to be eliminated because the series was decided by suspensions (Robert Horry’s foul on Steve Nash goaded Amare Stoudemire to leave the bench and get suspended) that cut the series short and left us feeling empty.  The other three series were all equally compelling.  I preferred Game 7 of Kings/Lakers to Game 7 of Lakers/Blazers, so I do think I’m compelled to prefer the whole series too.  Mavs/Spurs was also an incredible series, particularly the Game 7, where the Spurs fought back to take the lead only to blow the lead on Manu Ginobili’s foul on Dirk Nowitzki’s dunk.  Given that Spurs/Mavs was a second round series, I’ll give the edge to Kings/Lakers.