It takes a lot to bump Stephon Marbury off the back page, as the New York Knicks know well by now. He's been shunned by his teammates and coaches, banned from attending games by the franchise paying him $21.9 million this season, and Marbury still dishes assist after assist, slinging near-daily nuggets of comedy and controversy into the waiting hands of New York's press corps.
Charging hard toward a possible upset of the Lakers two weeks ago, the Knicks looked up to see their exiled teammate sitting in a courtside seat, clutching a ticket he had purchased himself. Be happy David Stern. In today's sluggish economy, there's still someone willing to pay top dollar to see your league.
But while Starbury has been the gift that keeps on giving for those of us in the media, even we must admit he doesn't deserve a place among the NBA's top stories of 2008. The year was just that good. From the Boston Celtics' return to power to Shaquille O'Neal's trade to Phoenix, this past year's headlines were as punchy as ever.
Here's hoping 2009 is just as drama-filled, and here's hoping, too, that Marbury is still around to entertain us throughout. What other player would declare his coach too untrustworthy to walk his dog? So lift a glass and toast Steph. We'll miss him when he's gone.
Top 10 stories of 2008
10. Where have the fans gone?: Unlike the NFL, the NBA isn't recession-proof. Or Grizzlie-proof. Empty seats are filling more and more arenas. The slowing economy has dropped attendance, but so has poor performance: The Sacramento Kings, who once played in the most-raucous building in the league, now rank last with an average of 12,185 fans.
Official attendance shows the arenas of 17 of the league's 30 teams averaging more than 90 percent capacity, but those numbers are inflated by giveaways. Season-ticket holders of the San Antonio Spurs have struggled to resell their seats for even 50 percent of face value. The Philadelphia 76ers, coming off a promising summer during which they signed Elton Brand, haven't drawn well since the start of the season.
Many league executives expect the economy's impact to become an even bigger story in 2009. As attendance continues to wither and revenues shrink, more owners could feel compelled to shed salaries, creating a greater divide between the league's haves and have-nots.
9. Rogue ref blows the whistle: With the league demanding $1 million in restitution from him, disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy unloaded a string of allegations of possible game-fixing and other official misconduct on the day of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Suddenly, Stern's dream matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics had been upstaged by claims that the Kings were cheated out of a berth in the 2002 Finals.
Stern held a news conference to dismiss the allegations, but Donaghy's smear attempt continued to dirty the Finals. For about three days. The bigger story? For all of the talk about the league being permanently damaged by the gambling scandal, you hardly hear it mentioned outside of Sacramento. Even news of Donaghy's sentencing and the league's efforts to restructure how it polices its referees rated little more than a 48-hour cycle later in the summer.
Attendance is down, but blame that on the economy or the league's poor decision to put franchises in Memphis and Charlotte. Don't credit Donaghy.
8. Baron-Elton marriage gone bad: Never have the Los Angeles Clippers had it so good. Baron Davis opted out of his contract in Golden State to come play for them. Elton Brand, their franchise forward, was re-signing. For the Clips, these were heady days, indeed.
All seven of them.
By the end of the first week of July, Brand had done an end-run to Philadelphia, cashing in on an $80 million offer from the Sixers – after he had persuaded Davis to come play with him in Los Angeles.
The Sixers are 12-17, have already fired their coach and Brand is out for a month with a separated shoulder. The Clippers are 8-21 in what appears to be a lost season that began with Davis and Mike Dunleavy knocking heads over the team's style of play. The Warriors, who used Davis' cap room to give $50 million to ex-Clip Corey Maggette, are 9-23 and now shopping Maggette.
Buyers' remorse, anyone?
7. Your 7 seconds are up, Phoenix Suns: Shawn Marion was the first to go. Then Mike D'Antoni. Raja Bell and Boris Diaw had their passports stamped a little more than a month into this season. All the change made even Steve Nash feel like he had been traded.
The Suns have undergone one of the league's most dramatic transformations in the past 10 months, importing Shaquille O'Neal, hiring Terry Porter and trading for Jason Richardson. Their goal? To become a tougher, more defensive-minded team.
The reality? They're giving up an average of 102.5 points, only a modest drop from last season.
6. See you, Seattle! The NBA abandoned one of its most endearing cities in 2008 by allowing the SuperSonics to move to Oklahoma City and rename themselves the Thunder. As far as bad trades go, this ranks right up there with Dirk Nowitzki for Robert Traylor and Memphis for Vancouver.
Give the fine folks of OKC credit. Their support of the New Orleans Hornets in the wake of Hurricane Katrina convinced the NBA to hand them their own franchise, and they've continued to show the Thunder plenty of love, despite getting only three wins in return.
For owner Clay Bennett, we have just four words: Karma. Sweet, sweet karma.
5. Make room for LeBron: We have yet to officially welcome in 2009, and already more than half the NBA is transfixed on 2010. That's the power of LeBron James. Not to mention Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Manu Ginobili.
Yes, the great free-agent chase of 2010 already has begun. The New York Knicks dumped Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph to free up salary-cap space for LeBron and a running mate of his choice. The Detroit Pistons swapped Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, in part because AI's contract expires at the end of this season.
Over the next 19 months, we promise to provide you with endless speculation on where LeBron will or won't go. Bigger question: Will Nike enjoy all of this, no matter where King James ends up?
You bet your Zoom LeBron VIs.
4. All hail, Kobe: Kobe Bryant fell short of picking up his first championship sans-Shaq, but it was still a productive year. He walked away with his first MVP award, helped the U.S. return to the gold-medal stand at the Olympics and celebrated his 30th birthday.
The Lakers have struggled of late, but they're still leading the West. And even if they again fail to win the title, a good, solid month of Kobe pouting always makes the summer go by faster.
3. Trading places:Pau Gasol. Shaq. Shawn Marion. Jason Kidd. Jermaine O'Neal. Ron Artest. Chauncey Billups. Allen Iverson. All of them were sent packing by their respective teams within the past year in one of the biggest season-to-season shakeups of big-name players in recent memory.
The relaxed trade rules had something to do with it. So did simple economics. More and more struggling teams decided it was better to rebuild with cap room and draft picks than continue to carry a player (or players) who can't lift them to the next level.
The Memphis Grizzlies helped start the frenzy when they shipped Gasol to the Lakers for Javaris Crittenton, the expiring contract of Kwame Brown, two first-round picks and the rights to Gasol's younger brother, Marc. The deal helped shift the balance of power in the West and didn't make Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace a popular man among his peers.
"You call that a trade?" Suns coach Terry Porter recently joked. "That was a giveaway."
2. Team USA's golden moment: After an embarrassing stretch that saw the United States finish fifth in the 2002 World Championships, third in the 2004 Olympics and third in the 2006 Worlds, the Redeem Team struck gold in Beijing.
Bryant, James and Wade paced Team USA, which looked dominant for much of its Olympic run before holding off Spain in the gold-medal game. Jerry Colangelo, who took over stewardship of the senior men's program, already has his first task in preparation for the 2012 Games in London: Persuade Duke's Mike Krzyzewski to come back or find someone else to coach.
1. Celtic uprising: More than anything, NBA 2008 was about the Boston Celtics' return to power. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all had their Hall of Fame careers validated by helping lead the NBA's most fabled franchise to its 17th title. Doc Rivers completed his own worst-to-first climb. P.J. Brown, plucked out of a receiving line at All-Star weekend, walked away with a championship ring.
That the Celtics knocked off their one-time hated rivals, the Lakers, made the story all the more compelling, even if the Finals were largely one-sided.
After surviving a seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Celtics eliminated the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals. Yet, in the minds of many, the Celtics entered the NBA Finals as decided underdogs to the Lakers. And when Pierce had to be rolled to the locker room with an apparent serious knee injury in Game 1, Jack Nicholson was ready to light his own victory cigar.
Pierce returned, however, and so did the Celtic mystique. The series was never the same. KG screamed after Boston routed the Lakers in Game 6. Pierce cradled the Finals MVP trophy.
For however long Boston's Big Three waited for their first championship, they appear even hungrier to take their second. Even with recent back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Warriors, the Celtics still hold the NBA's best record.
And if that's not enough? The Celtics also are said to be considering signing Marbury if and when he hits the market.
We can only hope.