Kobe Bryant's 81-point night. Carmelo Anthony's six buzzer-beating, game-winning shots. Steve Nash's amazing encore to his MVP campaign. The Pistons' utter domination of the league.
For the NBA, it was a year of spectacular performances, exciting moments and emerging young stars. And the most dramatic moments have yet to happen – they'll come in the playoffs, which begin on Saturday.
But before we get to the postseason, let's recognize some of the best individual performances of the regular season.
Here are my season-ending awards:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
LeBron James – This was the toughest selection of all the awards because there were as many as eight candidates worthy of consideration. But LeBron carried the Cleveland Cavaliers all season, putting up huge numbers while also bringing out the best in his teammates.
Of all the candidates, James is the most well-rounded. He is just the fourth player in league history to average at least 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists – the others being Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Jerry West. Perhaps James' best asset is his passing skill because he truly makes his teammates better. James created countless open looks for other Cavs throughout the season, but he also recognized when he needed to take over games on his own.
Moreover, LeBron's 31-point scoring average came on four fewer field-goal attempts per game than Kobe Bryant, proving that James is a more efficient scorer than the Lakers star.
Honorable mentions: Steve Nash, Suns; Kobe Bryant, Lakers; Elton Brand, Clippers; Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks; Shawn Marion, Suns; Dwyane Wade, Heat; Chauncey Billups, Pistons.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Mike D'Antoni – How can a team lose three of its top-five scorers – Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson – off a 62-win squad and still win its division? D'Antoni accomplished the feat by creating a style that promotes up-tempo, fast-paced basketball. His Phoenix Suns averaged 108 points per game and set an all-time NBA record for three-pointers made (824) this season – all with a revamped roster.
D'Antoni understands better than any coach in the league that players play their best when they are unencumbered and loose. His influence and style of play helped six Suns enjoy career-high seasons in points scored, and the result was back-to-back Pacific Division titles for the first time in franchise history.
Honorable mentions: Avery Johnson, Mavericks; Flip Saunders, Pistons; Mike Dunleavy, Clippers.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Chris Paul – Talk about a no-brainer. Paul was easily the best rookie, leading the New Orleans Hornets to a surprise season that almost culminated in a playoff berth. Paul combined great scoring skills (16.2 points per game) with a pass-first mentality (7.8 assists per game) and ball-hawking defense (third in the league in steals) to quickly become one of the best point guards in the entire league. He will be the cornerstone of the Hornets franchise for many years to come.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Bruce Bowen – For years, people have been calling Bowen the best "perimeter" defender in the game. It's time to give him the full moniker: best defensive player in the league.
Bowen's relentless pressure on the opponent's best player takes teams completely out of rhythm offensively, and his versatility allows him to cover almost anyone on the floor. He has frustrated everyone from Dirk Nowitzki to Ray Allen the past couple of seasons with his suffocating work, and his efforts key the San Antonio Spurs' defensive strategy of forcing teams away from the middle of the floor.
Bowen is the Richard Hamilton of defensive players. He never stops moving his feet – or his hands, as his detractors point out – and like a great shooter who has confidence even while missing, Bowen never hangs his head when his man scores on him. He continues to battle for 48 minutes, content in knowing that he will wear his man down.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Boris Diaw – Who could have imagined that Diaw would be such a good player after coming to Phoenix from Atlanta? Diaw did nothing in his first few seasons as a Hawk but found his niche as a point forward for the Suns, ringing up four triple-doubles this season and becoming one of only three players in the league to average at least 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. (LeBron James and Jason Kidd were the others).
The ball-handling skills and speed of the 6-foot-8 Diaw set him apart from other players his size. His ability to guard post players on the block allowed D'Antoni to play him at power forward, which meant that he had a huge advantage at the offensive end of the floor. Diaw's passing ability took pressure off of Steve Nash, giving the Suns another player through whom they could run their offense.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
Mike Miller – The University of Florida product came into his own this season, averaging 13.8 points off the bench and helping the Memphis Grizzlies to a surprisingly strong year. Miller's ability to shoot from long range and also attack the rim off the dribble makes him a very difficult matchup defensively for opponents. He was the perfect complement to Pau Gasol's low-post game.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
Donnie Walsh – Why Walsh? The Indiana Pacers president displayed amazing patience and dignity in handling the Ron Artest situation, eventually ending up with an All-Star in a trade for Peja Stojakovic. Walsh also made a steal in last summer's draft with his selection of Danny Granger with the 17th overall pick. The free-agent signing of Sarunas Jasikevicius also fortified the Pacers' backcourt and helped fill the shooting void left by Reggie Miller's retirement. Most of all, though, Walsh earned my vote with his ability to deal intelligently with the Artest case.
Honorable mentions: Elgin Baylor, Clippers; Donn
Nelson, Mavericks; Ernie Grunfeld, Wizards; Danny Ferry, Cavaliers.