First, the good news: We'll forget the lackluster regular season once the NBA playoffs kick off with a barrage of spectacular matchups, assuming everything breaks correctly. I don't need to sell you on the Spurs-Nuggets, Lakers-Suns or Cavs-Heat battles, but a Jazz-Rockets series works for any true basketball fan, and you don't like sports if you can't get excited for Nellie's run-and-gun Warriors battling his old Mavs team, or Toronto laying its feel-good season on the line against New Jersey and Public Enemy No. 1 (Vince Carter).
Now, the bad news: Of all the bummers inflicted on NBA fans this season (check the sidebar to the right), a flaccid MVP race received the least attention because everyone seems happy to hand Dirk Nowitzki the trophy and call it a day. Statistically, Nowitzki submitted superior seasons in 2005 and 2006, and his 2007 stats ranked behind Larry Bird's best nine seasons, Charles Barkley's best 10 seasons and Karl Malone's best 11 seasons. Nowitzki's shooting percentages were remarkable (50 percent on field goals, 90 percent on free throws, 42 percent on 3-pointers), but his relevant averages (24.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists) look like a peak season from Tom Chambers. He can't affect games unless he's scoring, doesn't make his teammates better and plays decent defense at best. If you're giving the MVP to someone because of his offense, he'd better be a killer offensive player. You can't say that about the 2007 Dirk Nowitzki.
The lowlights of the 2006-07 season:
• The single most memorable moment was a half-assed brawl.
• Of the league's most important under-25 stars, No. 1 (LeBron) mailed in the first three months more blatantly than David Duchovny mailed in the last "X-Files" season; No. 2 (Wade) separated a shoulder and missed half the season; No. 3 (Anthony) escalated the aforementioned brawl by throwing a sucker slap, then backpedaling 70 feet and earning a 15-game suspension; and No. 4 (Arenas) injured his knee and will miss the playoffs.
• So many front offices mangled their rosters beyond repair that the trade deadline passed without a major deal& even though four-fifths of the league desperately needed to shake things up. This was like watching 25 drivers repeatedly circle the same gas station, with all of them noticing the same yellow light in their cars, only nobody ever actually pulled in to get gas.
• Seven teams openly tanked the last four-five weeks of the season for lottery position, with another five joining them these past few weeks and pretty much destroying fantasy basketball as we knew it& not to mention all the poor saps who were shelling out big bucks for season tickets.
• A much-anticipated foray into Vegas for All-Star Weekend became a racial powder keg and the latest chance for non-NBA fans to degrade the league (in this case, unfairly).
• Two of the league's marquee superstars were trapped on terrible teams (Iverson and Garnett); one made it to a pseudo-contender, the other remains stuck in lottery hell.
• The "Oden versus Durant?" debate generated more interest than every NBA subplot combined.
The argument for the big German is simple: He's the most reliable crunch-time scorer in the league and the best player on a 69-win team. Of course, when the '97 Bulls won 69 games, you could have described Michael Jordan the exact same way ... and he finished second to Malone. Same for Jerry West on the '72 Lakers when they won 69 games (he finished second to Kareem). Then again, maybe we should scrap the historical comparisons after Steve Nash's back-to-back trophies transformed the award into what it is now: a popularity contest. It's a 900-number and Ryan Seacrest away from becoming a low-key version of "American Idol." And since people want the big German to win the award this year, he's going to win it.
In the irony of ironies, Nash played his greatest season at a time when everyone took him for granted and paid more attention to Nowitzki. This makes no sense to me, but few things about the NBA make sense these days. Regardless, neither of them is getting my vote. But before I reveal my 2007 pick on Wednesday morning, here's a look at some of the players who didn't make the cut (and where they finished in the top 450).
In reverse order ...
450. Marcus Banks
To win my LVP (Least Valuable Player) Award, you need to negatively affect a team in more ways than just "my eight-figure salary is killing their cap space" or "I drove into a parked car while masturbating to a porn movie."
You need to realize zero percent of your team's expectations, even though it traded a No. 1 pick (and a chance to take Rajon Rondo or Marcus Williams) to create enough cap space for a bench player who could save its best player's legs during the season. You need to be such a ginormous bust that your coach gave up on you within three weeks. You need to be untradable even though you have a reasonable salary ($21 million, five years). You need to become the albatross for a potential championship team that's single-handedly lowering its ceiling from an "A-plus" to an "A-minus." In other words, you need to be Marcus Banks.
447. Steve Francis
Made $15 million this season, on the hook for another $34.5 million through 2009 ... and he's a backup guard at best. How did this happen? Just for the hell of it, here's my All-Star team for sudden career collapses by an elite player that didn't involve a drug/alcohol problem or major injury: Francis, Alvin Robertson, Mark Aguirre, Xavier McDaniel and Bob McAdoo, with Jalen Rose, Nick Anderson, Juwan Howard, Sidney Wicks, Larry Hughes and Rony Seikaly coming off the bench.
(No, I'm not ready to throw No. 340 on that list yet. Hold on. We'll get to him.)
435. Chris Webber (Philly version)
You have to love a league in which somebody making $20 million a year can stink to the degree that his team asks him, "Hey, what if we paid you 95 percent of your salary money to play somewhere else, is that something you'd be interested in?" ... and then that same player goes to a contender and miraculously becomes good again. Watching C-Webb in Detroit has been like watching the last scene in "The Usual Suspects" for three straight months; all that was missing was Billy King dropping a coffee mug in slow motion.
409. Luke Jackson
This year's winner of the "Wait, Instead of Signing That Guy, Why Not Sign Paul Shirley Instead And Boost The Traffic To Your Team Web Site" Award, narrowly edging Uros Slokar and Scott Padgett.
401. Eric Snow
Every time I complain about the Celtics in a column, I get a few counter-responses from Cleveland fans (independently of one another) that specifically mention the agony of rooting for a superstar-led playoff team that plays Eric Snow 25 minutes a night. In a weird way, they say it's worse than rooting for a bad team. Look, I'm with you guys ... if my life were at stake and I had to pick any NBA player to miss a 20-footer that he was trying to make, or else I'd be killed, I'd pick Eric Snow and rejoice as he bricked a set shot off the side of the rim. But at least you get to watch LeBron. Come on.
389. Bonzi Wells
Frankly, I can't blame him for showing up overweight and stinking up the joint in Houston. Can you imagine passing up $30 million guaranteed and ending up with $2.1 million? I would have been thinking about this constantly. We should all be relieved that Bonzi simply fired his agent last summer instead of pulling an Ugie Urbina on the entire agency.
340. Andrei Kirilenko
You can't blame him for a confidence swoon that ranked only behind Britney Spears' breakdown in the past calendar year. For God's sake, he's a power forward! He should be playing near the basket on both ends, running around and doing Andrei Kirilenko things 40 minutes a night, not guarding small forwards and standing 20 feet from the rim waiting to clang his next jumper. This was stupid a year ago.
(Note: I'd trade for this guy in a kajillasecond. In fact, allow me to make this offer on behalf of the Celtics: Wally Szczerbiak, Ryan Gomes, our No. 32 pick in this year's draft and 18 complimentary months of MRI exams for Wally's bum knee in exchange for Kirilenko, three sports psychologists and the rights to John Amaechi's next comeback.)
309. Adam Morrison
I'm not giving up on him. He will be heard from before everything's said and done. Whether it's in the United States, Italy, Greece, Spain or Russia, he will be heard from.
297. Larry Hughes
Say what you want about John Hollinger's PER ratings, but it's never good when you're paying max money to someone who ranks 72nd on the 2-guard list. I've already preordered Brian Windhorst's book on Amazon.com -- "Why We Lost LeBron: Seven Long Years of Catastrophic Front Office Failure in Cleveland" -- even though the book can't officially be released until LeBron joins the 2010 Knicks. Get to work, Windhorst. Might as well start early.
287. Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy (tie)
The lesson, as always: Anytime you're considering a six-player NBA trade in which you end up with both overpaid white guys in the deal ... you might want to rethink that baby.
245. Tim Thomas
This was my first experience directly watching an NBA player parlay two months of quality playoff work into a four-year contract, then immediately stop giving a crap and playing hard once every four games. ... And lemme tell you, it was magical. In fact, it's even a little contagious: I no-showed six Clippers games in the past three months, including two in the past week (Portland and Sacramento). I didn't care whether I went or anyone else used the tickets -- the money was already down the drain, so why kill yourself worrying about it, you know? If anything, it's a cool feeling not to care. I feel just like Tim Thomas. So thank you, Timmy. You've opened a whole new world for me. Don't take it personally on Fan Appreciation Night this Wednesday as I'm lobbing frozen pieces of horse manure at you.
232. Brad Miller
How does someone play on the U.S. World Championships team, and six months later he looks like he should be holding a Miller Lite and guarding Brad Garrett at Garry Shandling's weekly pickup game?
208. Brian Scalabrine
Not a joke. He played 19 minutes a game before getting hurt last month, shot 40 percent from 3-point territory and played surprisingly good defense, and that's before getting into all the intangibles (great character guy, everyone loves him, etc.). The Celtics were 19-35 when he played and 4-22 without him. Sure, anytime Brian Scalabrine emerges as one of the bright spots of the season, you can probably reserve hotel rooms in Secaucus without even looking at the standings. But given how much abuse I gave Scalabrine last year, he needed to be mentioned. It's not his fault Danny Ainge overpaid him.
199. Walter Herrmann
You want to ask, "Wait, they stunk all season, how could that guy not have played more?" until you remember that his name makes him sound like a urologist and he looks like a cross between Fabio and one of those mutant women's volleyball players in the Pac-10. And then it all makes sense. Somehow he narrowly edged Jorge Garbajosa as my "Favorite New Foreigner of the Season" and played himself out of a spot on this year's Bill Simmons All-Stars for "Guys I Like For Whatever Reason That Nobody Else is Talking About Yet" because he received too much attention over the past few weeks.
So who made this year's cut? Well, you can't make the team twice, which rules out guys like David Lee, Anderson Varejao, Kyle Korver and Mikki Moore. But that left more room for this year's group: Rajon Rondo, Bostjan Nachbar, Mike Wilks (a super-sleeper), Sasha Pavlovic, Trevor Ariza, Andray Blatche (a personal favorite), Jose Calderon, Paul Millsap, Renaldo Balkman (ah, the irony), Paul Davis, Garbajosa, Kyle Lowry (injured list), and Sean May (this year's MVP). If I were running a team, I'd be trying to obtain all these guys -- especially May, since Charlotte might be dumb enough to trade him if they landed Oden or Durant. But nobody will give me a team to run. On the bright side, I'm one billionaire diehard reader away. I need just one.
189. Antoine Walker
Ever hear women say how "40 is the new 30" as an excuse if one of their friends isn't married yet? For NBA purposes the past five years, "30 is the new 38." Jalen Rose, Stephon Marbury, C-Webb, Walker, Francis, Juwan Howard, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Peja Stojakovic ... these guys are all breaking down or losing steam before they pass 30. See, age doesn't matter as much as odomoters in the NBA -- if your odometer passes 800 games and 30,000 minutes (regular season + playoffs), you're probably going to become a different player with very few exceptions (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace, to name five). And I mention this only because Antoine is moving like Redd Foxx in "Sanford and Son" right now.
155. Josh Smith
I'm penalizing him 100 spots for being a jerk. Can we make fun of Atlanta for giving this guy $75 million even though it hasn't happened yet? I say yes.
142. Andrea Bargnani
Remember when Marco Materazzi muttered the comment under his breath in the World Cup and got Zinedine Zidane to head butt him? Well, my mom's 100 percent Italian and would have called him a "skutch" (short for "scocciare"), an Italian phrase for someone who's deliberately annoying someone else or busting their chops. Out of all the skutches since the dawn of time, the Italians made it an art form over everyone else. It's in our DNA. And that's the thing I love about Bargnani (and never knew he had in him) -- as it turns out, he's a skutch, one of those guys who drains a 3 in front of an opposing bench, then turns around and swears at them in Italian. I'd take him over everyone in the 2007 draft except for Oden and Durant. He's a good one.
134. Jason Kapono
Once again, proving my time-tested theory that anyone can be a valuable NBA player if he has one elite skill, whether it's rebounding (Reggie Evans), shotblocking (Dikembe Mutombo), defense (Bruce Bowen), energy (Balkman), playmaking (Steve Blake), shooting (Kapono) or high-fiving guys while wearing a sportscoat (Sean Marks).
122. Mardy Collins
Briefly turned the Knicks season around with his "F-You!" clothesline of J.R. Smith. You know what I loved about that play? For once, a team stuck up for itself and showed a little competitive fire. That was one of the worst subplots of the season -- not all the losing and the tanking, but the general apathy as it was happening. I hated it. Mardy Collins gave us one of the only honest moments of the whole season. Thank you, Mardy.
112. Ricky Davis
Strange career: He's only 27 and his stats are pretty good, but he's played nine seasons and made the playoffs once. If Ricky remains in the league until he's 35 -- and it's questionable whether he'll be alive at 35, much less playing in the NBA -- he'll be starting the 2014-15 season as a 17-year veteran. Ricky Davis. Now that's bizarre. By the way, if we're keeping count this decade, Ricky leads the league in "crazy partying stories that have been passed around by everyone who follows the league but can't be confirmed by a firsthand witness who was actually there." He started taking on Bill Brasky proportions about three years ago.
My buddy's a trainer for the Grizzlies. ... He went out with Ricky Davis and some friends in Memphis a few years ago before a game, Ricky Davis dragged everyone over to Graceland, drank 19 bottles of Patrone and eventually tried to set the Elvis memorial on fire! And he played the next night and nearly put up a triple-double!
94. Corey Maggette
Not his fault that it took Mike Dunleavy five months to realize that Maggette was the second-best player on his team. I wish the NBA had the equivalent of the Razzie Awards so Dunleavy could win "Worst Coach of the Year."
89. Jermaine O'Neal, Pau Gasol (tie)
I like both of these guys as players. But when you're making max money, and you're the best guy on your team, you can't keep saying things like "Maybe it's time for me to move on" or "Maybe we'd be better off if I played somewhere else." You signed that contract and accepted the responsibility to be the franchise player on the team. Now that same franchise is struggling -- partly because of your inadequacies, by the way -- and you want to flee the premises like it's a crime scene?
I write this every year, and I'm writing it again: Just once before I die, I want an NBA owner to hold a news conference that will unfold like this:
"Thanks to everyone for coming today. I just wanted to quickly address (unhappy superstar making max money)'s comments today. Here's my response: F--- you. I should be the one complaining, not you -- you wanted to be paid like a franchise player when you're clearly not. More than anything else, that's why we suck. Hell will freeze over before I send you to a better team. Repeat: Hell will freeze over. You're stuck here. End of press conference."
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.