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Defining the decade: The best team, player and moments from the 2000s

How do you remember the 2000s?
How do you remember the 2000s? (Getty Images)

It's decades week here on NBA.com and each day we're paying our dues to the defining players, teams and moments of every decade.

"You can't tell the story of X without Y."

How many times have you heard that phrase in some way, shape or form? And how many times have you then heard anyone try to tell those stories?

Well that's exactly what we're doing, picking a different decade each day and telling the story of each 10-year run through the lens of the five defining moments... and only five!

We'll also pick out the best player, team and game along with some statistical superlatives.

Onto the 2000s...

The five moments that mattered

Shaq and Kobe: Where do you even start? Above all else, Shaq and Kobe played leading roles from start to finish with enough plot twists to make Martin Scorcese feel jealous.

The three-peat. The Finals loss to Detroit in 2004. The Christmas Day clash following Shaq's trade to the Miami Heat. Shaq winning a ring in Miami to one-up Kobe. Kobe going back-to-back to one-up Shaq. Freestyle battles. Sharing Co-MVP at the 2009 All-Star Game to close out the decade.

MORE: Shaq and Kobe voted by fans as better duo than Jordan and Pippen

From start to finish, Shaq and Kobe defined the 2000s like no other. One of the greatest duos in NBA history and one of the greatest personal rivalries in NBA history. Forget the 2000s, if you had to pick five defining arcs across all of NBA history you'd include Shaq and Kobe.

We also have the duo's dominance to thank for one of the all-time great championship parade performances.

Steady in San Antonio: The two decade run of sustained greatness may have started in the 1990s, but it reached another level in the 2000s with championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Beyond the winning culture established by Gregg Popovich and the unassuming greatness put forth by Tim Duncan, who claimed back-to-back MVP awards, the Spurs became an institution over the course of the decade, eschewing in a new era with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili flanking Duncan and a seemingly endless run of shrewd moves that always seemed to come at the perfect time.

MORE: The best plays of Tim Duncan's career

More than anyone, the Spurs always outsmarted their competition in the margins, be it through draft-and-stash methods or finding value where others could not. Case in point? Bruce Bowen. The small forward arrived in San Antonio in 2001 as a 30-year-old journeyman on his fourth team in as many seasons. He would proceed to make seven All-Defense teams over the next eight seasons with the Spurs and now has his jersey hanging from the rafters at the AT&T Center.

The NBA goes global: Moreso than any other decade, this is the period when the NBA truly took on an international identity.

Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs. Dirk Nowitzki won an MVP and an NBA title. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker played starring roles as part of a Spurs dynasty. Pau Gasol rode shotgun to Kobe en route to a pair of championships. Yao Ming exponentially popularized the game in China.

The NBA draft fundamentally changed forever with the sudden and seemingly overnight influx of top-rated prospects. Gasol, Yao, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Darko Milicic, Mickael Pietrus, Andris Biedrins, Andrea Bargnani, Yi Jianlian, Danilo Gallinari and Ricky Rubio... all taken inside of the top 10. For context, Nowitzki was the only top-10 international player taken in the 90s who didn't play in college in the United States.

LeBron's arrival: LeBron showed up in 2003 and the NBA was never the same, even if his ironfisted rule reign didn't begin until the 2010s. From the second he stepped foot into the NBA limelight with the all white suit on draft day and the thousands flocking to catch him in Summer League play, it's evident that his arrival marked the beginning of a new era even if it simmered before truly boiling over.

It's not dissimilar to Michael Jordan showing up in the 1980s, gathering strength and experience while slowly transforming into the game's best player and then unequivocally taking over the 1990s.

MORE: LeBron still sits in the throne in his 17th season

That first head-turning regular season debut against the Sacramento Kings, the heated (yet somehow forgotten) playoff rivalry with the Washington Wizards, the 25 straight onslaught against the Pistons, the Herculean task of dragging the 2007 Cavs to the Finals, the first MVP award, the many battles with the Boston Celtics... the 2000s were beyond memorable for LeBron and an appetizer for an even more spectacular 2010s.

Vinsanity: 43 days into the decade, Vinsanity reached an all-time high with the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest.

Back for the first time since 1997, the Slam Dunk Contest had a real buzz and energy that hadn't been present in over a generation. The reason? Vince Carter.

Barely a year into his career - Carter's rookie season the season before didn't start until February due to the lockout - Vinsanity had already swept the nation as the high-flying Raptor unleashing an aerial game not seen since the late 80s and early 90s highwire acts of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Carter's game and the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest itself served as a harbinger of sorts with his highlight-happy game providing the recipe for drawing in a younger generation of fans that in the decades to follow would get their NBA fix on YouTube and Instagram as much as they would game broadcasts.

MORE: Ranking the best dunks for Vince and MJ

Carter's popular appeal, even in the midst of an era with Shaq, Kobe, Allen Iverson and even Michael Jordan with his return to the Wizards, was undeniable as he led all players in All-Star voting, a feat which at the time had only been matched by Jordan and Julius Erving (both Bryant (4) and LeBron James (7) have since done it).

The impact of Vinsanity on how fans consume the NBA can't be oversold and his ensuing rise as a basketball immortal on YouTube paved the way for the next generation in ways that extend well beyond the court itself.

Biggest what if: Shaq and Kobe staying together

It's one of the biggest "what ifs" in NBA history. Voted by fans as the greatest duo in NBA history earlier this year on NBA.com, Shaq and Kobe three-peated in dominant fashion to start the decade and by the summer of 2004 had split with O'Neal heading to the Heat.

How many championships they would have won together had their rift been mended in Los Angeles? That question itself is one of the biggest unanswerable questions in recent NBA history with the prevailing sentiment that three championships somehow feels like too few.

There are certainly others:

  • What if Duncan went to Orlando with both Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in 2000?
  • What if the Pistons hadn't drafted Darko?
  • What if Portland took Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden?

But none seems as pronounced as a world in which Shaq and Kobe stayed teammates for the rest of their careers.

Best team: 2000-01 Lakers

Honourable mention: 2007-08 Celtics, 2003-04 Pistons, 2002-03 Spurs

The team that came one out-of-body experience by Allen Iverson away from going undefeated in the 2001 playoffs, these Lakers were the best version of the Shaq and Kobe Lakers even if they were somewhat of a "flip the switch" team after finishing second in the West during the regular season. Both transcendent teammates finished in the top-five in MVP voting with Bryant also receiving top-three love in the race for Defensive Player of the Year.

Add in an eight-game win streak to end the season, the Lakers finished on a 23-1 blitzkrieg which included playoff sweeps over the Trail Blazers (who took them to seven in the WCF the year before), the Kings (an up-and-coming crew that would push the Lakers to seven in the WCF the next year) and the Spurs (who won an NBA-most 58 games).

The 2007-08 Celtics were the best regular season team and although they won the title, they scrapped and clawed their way past multiple seven-game series and needed six to close out both the ECF and NBA Finals.

Best player: Kobe Bryant

Honourable mention: Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal

OK, so by now you might be getting the impression that I'm a Lakers fan.

I promise you that's not the case.

Look, if you're asking me who I'd rather build a team around, I'd probably lean Duncan. He's the most unselfish superstar perhaps ever and malleable enough to legitimately build and win with any style or system. If you're asking me who is the most dominant player, the answer is Shaq and it's not even close. I'd take Shaq's ceiling over anyone else from the decade and almost anyone else, period.

But if we're simply talking "which player best represented the decade," it's Bryant, who won four titles (and a fifth in 2010), made an All-NBA team every year and nearly made All-Defense every year. Labeling Bryant's climb back to the top of the summit a rebirth or revival likely oversells how dire things truly got in Los Angeles despite the trade demands and roster upheaval, but his second act as No. 24 is nothing short of remarkable and completes his script as the defining player of the decade.

Best game: Celtics-Bulls triple OT playoff thriller

Honourable mention: Kobe's 81-pt game, Game 7 of 2000 WCF, Nash/Kidd double OT duel

The Celtics and Bulls series from 2009 is often considered the best first round series ever as four of the games went to overtime. The Bulls pushed the defending champs to seven games, winning Game 1 in overtime, Game 4 in double overtime and Game 6 in triple overtime.

Game 6 gets my nod for game of the decade. Ray Allen pours in 51 with a rookie Derrick Rose finishing with 28-8-7 in a back-and-forth affair which featured 21 lead changes and an 18-0 Celtics run in the fourth quarter which turned a double-digit deficit into an eight-point lead only for the Bulls to rally and force OT.

If you haven't seen this game, do yourself a favour and change that. Immediately.

The best performance is the 81-point game, a game in which the Lakers needed all 81 of those points from Bryant.

The best game with the biggest stakes is Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals in which the Lakers stormed back from 15 down in the fourth quarter. From a big picture narrative-shifting perspective, that one's tough to beat.

The best regular-season game is the duel between Steve Nash and Jason Kidd in which the Suns outlasted the Nets 161-157 in a track meet. The Hall of Fame point guards combined for 80 points and 27 assists in what may have been the best game of both of their careers.

In terms of quality of play, overall excitement and the stakes, I'm sticking with the Bulls-Celtics playoff thriller even if there are more memorable games.

Best stat standouts

Which players stuffed the stat sheet like no other? We've got you covered! Below are the statistical leaders for the regular season only spanning the 1999-00 through 2008-09 seasons.

1999-00 through 2008-09
Wins Tim Duncan 547
Points Kobe Bryant 13,805
Rebounds Tim Duncan 6,448
Assists Steve Nash 4,940
Blocks Tim Duncan 1,342
Steals Jason Kidd 937
Triple-doubles Jason Kidd 52
3-pointers Ray Allen 1,186
Win Shares Dirk Nowitzki 137.1
Player Efficiency Rating Shaquille O'Neal 26.5

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs

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