'09 NBA stories: L.A. steals the show

For the NBA, it was a year that looked a lot like the previous one: Shaq got traded, Tim Donaghy got under David Stern's skin, Kobe Bryant(notes) and LeBron James(notes) ranked as the league's best players and Stephon Marbury(notes) ate a little more Vaseline.

The league's storylines were just as appetizing in 2009 as they were in 2008, even while everyone cleared their plates for the smorgasbord of 2010. The greatest free-agent market in league history opens in six months. Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement, which figures to change the league's economic structure, will continue.

As '09 comes to a close, this much is clear: Next year will define the NBA for a long time to come.

Top 10 stories of 2009

10. A.I.'s 16-minute retirement: Was that a retirement announcement Allen Iverson(notes) faxed on Nov. 25 or a "job wanted" ad? At the same time A.I.'s handlers confirmed he was ending his career, they also whispered he'd likely play if someone offered him a contract.

The problem, of course, was that none had. Iverson hadn't really retired as much as the NBA had retired him. A.I. admitted as much in his statement: "I still have tremendous love for the game, the desire to play and a whole lot left in my tank," he said.

Few teams cared. Iverson didn't want to come off the bench for the Detroit Pistons. He didn't want to come off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies. The New York Knicks flirted with signing him, but they, too, reached the same conclusion most of the NBA had: The potential reward didn't justify the risk.

The Philadelphia 76ers eventually saw a few positives. A.I. had led them to greatness before. Now, with an empty arena and an eight-game losing streak, even mediocrity would be a step up for them. They signed him, and for one news conference and one night, it made for a touching scene.

So far, the sentimental reunion has been one of the few highlights. The Sixers won one of the four games Iverson played, then watched him go on the injured list with a sore knee. A.I. is expected to return soon, but if one of the game's most exciting performers is going to make an impact this season, it will be in 2010, not '09.

9. Nets' losing streak: Blame it on the New Jersey Nets' cap-saving plan. Or their numerous injuries. Or the fact that they're, well, the Nets. But New Jersey's history-making, 18-game losing streak to start the season was remarkable in itself. Not even the Los Angeles Clippers can say they were ever this bad.

At some point you're bound to catch a team on the right night. Maybe the calls go your way. Or the other guys are dead-legged at the end of a road trip. Not for the Nets. They went 37 days before winning. Yes, it cost Lawrence Frank his job, but who was the real winner in that divorce?

The Nets since turned their attention to more important matters: With just two wins in their first 30 games, history is again well within their reach. The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers went 9-73 to set the NBA's season-long futility record. At their current pace, the Nets will win just five games.

8. Yao Ming's(notes) season ends before it begins: The Houston Rockets finally made it out of the first round of the playoffs (no thanks to you, Mr. T-Mac) and three games into their series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Yao Ming pulls up lame. The Rockets don't catch breaks; they snap their tarsal naviculars.

The news only got worse after the season: Yao needed surgery. He eventually underwent a bone graft and had his left arch reduced, which is expected to cost him the entire 2009-10 season. Yao has progressed well and the Rockets are hopeful he'll return as strong as ever in the fall of 2010, but skeptics unite. The big question isn't whether Yao will be back. It's how long he'll stay healthy after he does return.

7. Rookie race: Brandon Jennings(notes) electrified the NBA with his double-nickel game against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 14. It ranked as one of the greatest rookie performances of all-time and attracted a flood of attention for the 20-year-old. The national media booked Milwaukee on their itineraries (or at least looked up the Bucks' phone number). The NBA Store began stocking Jennings' No. 3 jersey. The Bucks might have even sold an extra ticket or two.

It was a nice story until everyone noticed that this Tyreke Evans(notes) kid can play a little, too. With the Sacramento Kings widely expected to finish at the bottom of the Western Conference, Evans has helped guide them to a respectable record while the team's supposed franchise player, Kevin Martin(notes), was sidelined.

And as remarkable as Jennings' 55-point game was, Evans delivered just as thrilling a game when he led the Kings back from a 35-point second-half deficit to beat the Chicago Bulls.

6. Kobe and LeBron share marquee at Garden: New York Knicks fans needed something to cheer about last season, and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were all too happy to oblige. Bryant scored a Madison Square Garden record 61 points on Feb. 2 then walked off the court as the crowd showered him with an MVP chant. James won over the fans two days later with an equally remarkable performance that initially was recorded as a 52-point triple-double.

"The sad thing is that I'm sure LeBron said that it's no big deal to get 61 points," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'll just get a triple-double. [Kobe] didn't do that."

The NBA later took away one of LeBron's rebounds, but it didn't erase this truth: The league's two greatest showmen had each given an epic performance on its biggest stage. Three months later, LeBron again one-upped Kobe by winning the MVP award.

5. Hall of Fame inducts Michael Jordan: John Stockton, Jerry Sloan and David Robinson joined Jordan on stage for perhaps the Hall's greatest class ever. After a night of touching speeches, Jordan delivered an I-told-you-so sermon that captured both his bitterness and his unquenchable thirst for competition.

Jordan called out Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, George Gervin, Pat Riley – even an old high-school teammate. Like it or not, Jordan's oration was just like so many other moments during his career: one of a kind.

4. Cavaliers trade for the Big Witness: When the Cavs turned down a chance to acquire Shaquille O'Neal(notes) at the trade deadline, it was widely considered a wise move. Why risk Shaq slowing you down when you're already rolling? Midway through the season, the Cavs clearly looked like the NBA's most complete team. They had the dominant superstar, shooters to space the floor, a couple of gritty rebounders and a savvy, veteran center. There was nothing they lacked.

Except, apparently, a big, bruising center to handle Dwight Howard(notes).

The Cavs won 66 games, swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs and ran … straight into Howard's chest. Cleveland had no answer for Howard's size and physicality in the Eastern Conference finals. By the time the Orlando Magic finished the six-game series, Cavs officials knew they'd be back on the phone with the Phoenix Suns soon enough.

Cleveland completed the trade in the days leading up to the draft, and Shaq boldly declared he was joining the Cavs "to win a ring for the King." Incorporating O'Neal has taken time – he's had to adjust to a lesser role than even the one he played in Phoenix – but the Cavs still rank among the East's top three teams. And they just pounded the Los Angeles Lakers' formidable frontline.

3. NBA's salary cap decreases: The news came in the form of an email, sent to team executives late on the night of June 30. All that salary-cap room you've meticulously planned to have in the summer of 2010?

Don't expect it to be as much as you thought.

With ticket and sponsorship revenue taking a hit from the recession, the league's salary cap dropped for just the second time in history. NBA officials also warned teams that the worst is yet to come: The cap could further decrease after this season.

The league's initial estimate projects the cap to fall from this season's $57.7 million to somewhere between $50.5 million and $53.5 million. Some teams now think the drop won't be as severe, but the message is the same: If you thought you'd cleared enough room to sign LeBron and Chris Bosh(notes), you might have some more work to do.

2. Where will LeBron end up? Only in the NBA does one of the year's biggest stories center on an event that won't take place until 2010. Even in 2009, James' impending free agency – along with that of Dwyane Wade(notes), Bosh, Joe Johnson(notes) and Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) – dominated much of the in-season chatter.

LeBron has publicly flirted with the New York Knicks for nearly two years, but not until last month did he finally seem exhausted by the constant speculation about his future. Not that it's stopped. Each Cavs' win or loss is analyzed for its impact on LeBron. Lose to the Celtics, and it's clear LeBron needs a better supporting cast. Blow out the Lakers, and why would he even dream of giving up his kingdom on Lake Erie?

As the countdown to Summer of LeBron continues, 2010 will bring only more of the same.

1. Lakers reclaim their throne: Fueled by their embarrassing performance at the end of the 2008 NBA Finals, the Lakers opened the season with only one goal: Win the franchise's 15th championship.

They looked disinterested at times, they again lost Andrew Bynum(notes) along the way, but they also were better than everyone else. Phil Jackson passed Red Auerbach with his 10th title and Kobe proved he could win without Shaq. They also didn't stop making headlines after the season. Over the summer, Ron Artest(notes) and Khloe Kardashian signed on for the ride.

Much like the Boston Celtics owned 2008, 2009 belonged to the NBA's other fabled franchise. This was the Year of the Lakers, and considering their current perch atop the Western Conference, 2010 could be, too.