5 Denver Nuggets
Going into the season, the Nuggets looked like the same old team: Lots of firepower, little results. But an early November blockbuster that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit and brought in Chauncey Billups changed the face of the 2008-09 Nuggets. Billups proved to be a perfect fit. The Nuggets landed the 2nd seed in the West and, for once, a first round exit wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In fact, Denver blew through the first two rounds with just 2 losses before losing in 6 to the Lakers in the Conference Finals. And we are still firm believers they’d have won if only they brought back these uniforms.
4 Boston Celtics
The defending champion Celtics brought back nearly their entire team from the last season, and it showed early. They finished the regular season with the league’s third-best record and rolled into the playoffs with ease. The only problem was they met the Bulls in round 1. Sure Chicago was just a .500 team, but Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose and sidekick Ben Gordon looked a lot like the sons that were suddenly able to hang with Dad in a pickup game, and Dad just looked tired. The Celts pulled it out in 7, but ran into an Orlando team that made them play 7 more, and Boston just ran out of gas.
3 Cleveland Cavaliers
In 2008-09, the Cavs came of age. It was LeBron’s 5th year in the league, and he celebrated it with an MVP award, a league-best 66-win season – vastly improving on the Cavs’ previous year’s total of 45 – and a cake (Carvel actually offers a 5th NBA anniversary cake. Weird, right?). Cleveland looked like a sure thing as they swept away the Pistons and Hawks in the first two rounds, but they ran into some serious Magic in the Conference Finals. Orlando dispatched Cleveland in 6, and Bron-Bron refused to shake anyone’s hands or be interviewed after the game. Yeah, he pretty much took his ball and went home.
2 Orlando Magic
In his fifth season in the league, Dwight Howard was rounding into form as the game’s best center (not to mention a friggin’ hulk), and Orlando was reaping the benefits. The Magic dominated the Southeast division, despite losing All-Star guard Jameer Nelson for the season with a torn labrum. Recruiting off an old And1 Mix Tape, Orlando traded for Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston, who filled in admirably at point, and Dwight turned his game up, winning Defensive Player of the Year and leading Orlando to the East’s #3 seed. Like the Lakers, the Magic went 6, 7, and 6 in the playoffs, shockingly taking out the defending-champion Celtics and the league best Cavaliers along the way. In the finals, Courtney Lee’s missed game two layup was really the only moment that could’ve turned things in Orlando’s favor though, as they stumbled and fell 4-1 to the Lakers.
1 Los Angeles Lakers
Coming off a loss to Boston in the NBA finals, the Lakers came out of the gate strong in their first full season with Kobe Bryant and Pau “Ow-face” Gasol playing together. Their 65 regular-season wins marked the third most in franchise history and the most since 2000, back when Shaq had not yet asked Kobe how his ass tastes. The Lakers ran away with the division and the Western Conference #1 seed, but faced some adversity in the playoffs with their first three series going 6, 7, and 6 games each. Nevertheless, they landed in the NBA Finals for the 30th time in franchise history, and looked anything but tired as they beat the Magic 4-1, winning the franchise’s 15th championship and gave L.A. residents the perfect excuse to joyously light stuff on fire.