Commentary

The biggest winners of the '09 playoffs

Originally Published: June 16, 2009
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kobe BryantEmmanuel Dunand/Getty ImagesHe got his fourth ring, a Finals MVP trophy and the monkey off his back. Yep, Kobe had a good '09 run.

The eight biggest winners of the 2009 NBA Playoffs:

Kobe Bryant

Don't think we need a grand explanation here.

Not after Kobe, who had to wait only four years to get his first NBA ring, lived through seven stomach-turning seasons of wild surges and dips on the Kobe Coaster between rings No. 3 and No. 4.

Not after Kobe openly described his first title as the Lakers' undisputed leader as a "big ol' monkey off my back." No one had more to lose in the Finals than Bryant, after his team was beaten in the championship series as the heavy favorite in both 2004 (Detroit) and 2008 (Boston). So no one can be a bigger winner in the '09 playoffs than No. 24.

That's doubly true when you realize that the Lakers still have some serious growth potential, given that Pau Gasol is only 28 and that Andrew Bynum -- who was supposed to be the big difference-maker for this group compared to the '08 Lakers -- had such a minimal playoff impact. If Bynum can bounce back from two injury-plagued seasons to be anything close to the force the Lakers project him to be, then what?


Jackson
Jackson

Phil Jackson

The new champs, as you'd imagine, have a list of individual winners that stretches well beyond Bryant. General manager Mitch Kupchak has to be up there, for starters, given the considerable abuse he has absorbed since the last championship in 2002 in a thankless job as Jerry West's successor. Kupchak's redemption was delivered in large part by the supporting cast he assembled around Bryant.

Shall we continue? Gasol is suddenly soft no more. Lamar Odom was crucially selfless in a contract year. Derek Fisher has joined Robert Horry in Lakers lore as the ultimate clutch-on-cue role players. We instantly see all of them differently now, along with Kupchak and emerging two-way difference-maker Trevor Ariza, who converted 47.6 percent of his 3-point attempts in the playoffs to go with all that sticky defense.

Yet no name jumps off the list faster than Jackson's, after his 10th championship in a ridiculous 18-season span. Do the math and you are tempted to throw Jackson's name above Kobe, even in this players' league.

With apologies to Red Auerbach, there is no way now to deny Jackson his GOAT status (Greatest of All Time) among coaches. The size of the egos and contracts and the levels of scrutiny and pressure are such in the modern game that there is simply no comparison when it comes to winning today versus yesteryear. And as Kobe and others have so aptly said in recent days, no one wins championships with "a bunch of scrubs," which hopefully hushes those who persist with the claim that Jackson couldn't have won this much if he didn't inherit Michael Jordan and then the tag team of Kobe and Shaq.

Jackson has always been perceived as smug and has never been interested in connecting with his fellow coaches in an otherwise closely knit fraternity. Few of those peers regard him as an X's and O's master, either. Try, though, to name a coach -- in any sport -- who can get megastars as complex and diverse as he's had in Chicago and L.A. to listen and buy in like Jackson has.

"With Phil," says one of his former players, "it's all presence and psychology."


Billups
Billups

Chauncey Billups

Kudos to Bill Simmons for that provocative list he assembled recently detailing a number of dubious playoff performances that somehow haven't inflicted any damage to Chauncey Billups' Mr. Big Shot rep. Chauncey certainly failed to distinguish himself in the last two games of the Western Conference finals, when the Nuggets' dream season abruptly melted.

Yet none of Simmons' findings can change the view here that the Billups we saw in the first two rounds against New Orleans and Dallas was the best Billups we've ever seen. Or tied, at worst, with the Billups who helped shoot down the Lakers in 2004 to win Finals MVP.

Chris Paul remains the consensus best point guard in the league and Dirk Nowitzki averaged a steely and underrated 34-and-12 in the face of unprecedented turmoil in his personal life, but neither had a chance to advance against Denver's depth, setting up a run to the final four that finally brought some national attention to the impact Billups' arrival has had on his hometown team.

What even the Nuggets couldn't have imagined at the time of trading Allen Iverson for Billups was that it was almost like trading for three or four new players, because the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith were so much more plugged in, potent and unified following Chauncey's lead. And Billups, playing with all those young athletes, was clearly rejuvenated.

Says Nuggets coach George Karl: "I've yelled at [Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich numerous times: 'You don't coach in the NBA, you've had Tim Duncan. You've had 10 years of Tim Duncan. He's your policeman.' We all want a Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash. They do so much for you. ... Chauncey polices a lot of the stuff."


Fans counting on a free-agent bonanza in 2010

The reflex response as soon as the Finals end is to get lathered up about all the money that soon-to-be free agents -- such as Ariza, Odom, Hedo Turkoglu, Marcin Gortat, Chris Andersen, Ron Artest, Ben Gordon and Andre Miller -- made in the playoffs by playing big.

The reality is that we're still sorting that out because of the widely held expectation that free-agent dollars will be tighter than ever this summer thanks to the unforgiving world economy. Ariza and Gortat might be two guys who are capable of commanding the full $5.6 million midlevel exception, but it would be a surprise in this climate to see more than a couple free agents make that kind of score.

The solace for those of you who can't wait for transaction season every July is that the bonanza summer we've all been promised in 2010 figures to play out to maximum suspense thanks to Cleveland's failure to even reach the Finals after winning 66 games -- and the panic that has caused all over Ohio -- along with Miami's inability to get out of the first round.

Let's just say that the next 12 months are bound to generate twice as much talk about the possibilities for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to change teams than you've heard during the past 12.



The other Celtics, for a change

For all the uncertainty surrounding Garnett's recovery from knee surgery and the recent fretting about Ray Allen's advancing age at 33 -- as well as the letdown of never really seeing Stephon Marbury and KG reunite on the floor -- there were at least three postseason silver linings for last season's champs.

Kendrick Perkins.

Glen Davis.

And most notably, Rajon Rondo.

Assuming that the Celtics can patch up and re-establish their three-star foundation, they'll have a far more seasoned and hardened supporting cast than the 2008 title team did, judging by Perkins' admirable one-on-one work against Dwight Howard, Big Baby's big-time shot-making and Rondo's tantalizing playoff averages that make you want to forget about any of his warts: 16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.8 assists.



The Chicago Bulls

Three rounds later, I have to make it clear I remain firmly in the camp which maintains that the Boston-Chicago series in Round 1 -- dramatic, historic and irresistibly terrific as it was -- needed to have a bigger impact on the championship itself to merit any Greatest Series Ever consideration.

You are entitled to disagree, as always, but you are likewise invited to consider how quickly those teams faded from our consciousness as the playoffs progressed. The view here is that if the outcome had no real impact on the Eastern Conference bracket -- an indisputable reality given Garnett's absence -- it doesn't matter how many games went to overtime. The stakes simply weren't high enough to get Celtics-Bulls into the greatest-ever debate.

None of that, though, would dare stop us from putting the Bulls -- pretty much all of them -- high on this list. Derrick Rose playing better in Games 1, 4 and 6 than he ever did during a regular season in which he was the rookie of the year, Joakim Noah suddenly looking like an NBA difference-maker, Ben Gordon performing under pressure -- these guys were catalysts for a postseason that was far more unpredictable than we were all expecting.


Pizza and candy

Both of these staples straight off the sportswriting menu are now apparently acceptable fare for NBA players -- albeit to the horror of GMs and team doctors everywhere -- after TV cameras outed the former as Hedo Turkoglu's pregame meal of choice in the locker room and after Lamar Odom's obsession with the latter resulted in a full-fledged exposé on "SportsCenter."

The story got so big in Odom's case that folks in the stands are now constantly calling out "Candy Man" to him, although he seemed a bit more comfortable with his new tag when Professor Hollinger and I informed him that the same nickname worked out OK for a World Series ring-winning Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher in the 1970s named John Candelaria.

"Was he a lefty?" Odom asked. His face lit up when he heard the answer.


O'Neal
O'Neal

Shaquille O'Neal

We hung on Shaq's every Twitter dispatch. We spent the hours before the final game of the 2008-09 season obsessing over the likelihood of a Shaq-LeBron tag team in Cleveland next season ... and the odds of seeing Shaq and LeBron versus Kobe in the 2010 Finals. We watched Kobe break through and win that first ring without Shaq as a sidekick, but definitely not without Shaq's presence felt for every minute of this series that hooked up the team that drafted him and the team that stole him away four years later.

The Phoenix Suns, remember, didn't even make it to the playoffs, but that didn't stop O'Neal from ingesting his usual slice of the postseason spotlight. Which undoubtedly delights him.


Howard
Howard

Dwight Howard

It has to be hard for anyone who has anything to do with the Magic to feel good about anything right now.

They were a Courtney Lee layup -- difficult as the shot actually was -- away from stealing Game 2. They lost a killer Game 4 at home in a hailstorm of missed free throws. And they surrendered pretty meekly in Game 5 after those two overtime losses, forcing even the biggest of Stan Van Gundy fans (like me) to concede that it would have been undoubtedly better to see how the Finals unfolded without bringing Jameer Nelson back from his four-month layoff in Game 1. Had he held Jameer out of the opener, Stan would have had the ultimate inspirational counter to respond to the sort of series-starting blowout Orlando absorbed with Nelson. And no need to take that gamble if the Magic had found a way to steal Game 1.

Yet you can't proceed to next season without acknowledging that the Magic's future looks pretty tasty ... provided that they can hang on to Hedo in free agency. For all of the criticism Howard will continue to hear about his success rate from the line and the low-post polish he still needs so badly, Orlando has a young nucleus in its prime that suddenly has some good experience. One team exec I trust implicitly insists that the Magic are "set up for the next five years" as well as any team in the league, provided (again) that they find the bucks to keep Turkoglu.

There are obviously no guarantees, given that Howard still has to develop a face-up jumper away from the basket and learn to be quicker and more decisive in the post, but he stands to benefit greatly from this sooner-than-expected ride to the big stage at age 23. He could and he should.

Click here to see the biggest losers of the 2009 playoffs

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics