NBA Lockout Over: 25 Can't-Miss Story Lines for the 2011-12 Season
NBA fans nearly missed a myriad of story lines and events for the 2011-12 season.
With reports of a handshake agreement to be finalized in the coming week, the NBA owners and Players Association can still save things in time for a Christmas Day start.
It appears that they finally realized this lockout differed greatly from the one in 1999.
Following up one of its most intriguing seasons ever by then missing an entire year would have set the league back half a decade or more.
Last season had too many unfinished story lines, built too much excitement for 2012 and was one of the first times in years where nearly everything seemed to be going right for the NBA. They should have been taking another big step towards their next golden age.
Instead, both sides nearly pissed away their popularity, good will and credibility for a percentage point or two.
Missing the next chapter was going to create a disjointed story which just wouldn't read well even if and when the NBA did resume.
Thankfully, a new deal is coming. Here are 25 NBA story lines we now get to enjoy this season.
A Dallas Mavericks Title Defense
The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were both competent and unheralded throughout the regular season, only to become lightning in a bottle by the playoffs.
That perfect mixture of a top-of-his-game Dirk Nowitzki and title-hungry, something-still-in-the-tank veterans is going to be hard to replicate, no matter the circumstances.
Duplicating the roster-wide chemistry and timely play for an aged squad that was two years older would have been practically impossible had they been forced to wait until 2013.
As it is now, the Mavs will have to hope that Dirk stays healthy and on fire, the other veterans have one more good season left and that they can find some youthful reinforcements.
Kobe Bryant's Last Elite Season
His stats and minutes have been very slowly eroding for a couple of years, but the 15-year veteran DID gut his way through all 82 games and the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs.
One gets the sense that Kobe Bryant's tank is still full, but not for all that much longer.
Having an extra year off to rest his banged-up body might have done wonders, but it would also have brought Kobe back when he was nearly 35 years old.
Will he still be a very good player for as long as he's in the league? Absolutely.
But we're about to see Kobe's last season as a bona fide star before he transitions to key supporting player.
250-Plus Blake Griffin SportsCenter Highlights
Blake Griffin gave SportsCenter and YouTube something new and exciting every night last season.
He probably single-handedly captivated more casual basketball fans than anyone else in the NBA, while also making the Los Angeles Clippers relevant for the first time since 2006.
Now, I'm not saying that Griffin would have pulled a Shawn Kemp—his high-flying doppelganger predecessor who returned from the 1999 Lockout as a coked-up, 50-pounds-overweight tub of goo—but there's always too many ways that the magic could be lost.
We've already missed one full year of Blake Griffin's aerial assaults (his 2009-10 season lost to injury).
Sports fans were about to get absolutely robbed if we had to lose another.
Instead, we'll all be watching SportsCenter again every night just for Blake.
The Big Three's Last Gasp
Rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated in seasons of late, but the Boston Celtics' core is certainly on its last legs.
The Celts will once again have to do everything they can to flank their geriatrics with both youthful energy and veteran know-how.
But this team is already beginning the full transition to Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and (maybe) Glen Davis.
This is the last season before the Big Three have to cede their roles as roster cornerstones.
David Stern Retiring While Still on Top (Sort Of)
Had the lockout killed the 2011-12 season for good, David Stern would have left as the man who wore out any and all good will from among his players, couldn't rally consensus from his owners, came off to all bystanders as both draconian and out of touch, didn't foresee the "nuclear winter" coming two years ago, didn't have a fail-safe plan to avert it and ultimately killed all momentum built during the past half-decade.
Instead, Stern can retire after this season as the man who saved the NBA from its nadir of the early 1980s, ushered in the Michael Jordan golden age, spurred expansion in the heady 1990s, pioneered globalization during the ho-hum 2000s and left the league poised for another high point.
His legacy may now be secure, but David Stern nearly botched this. The fact that he's increasing Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver's role and exposure on a daily basis suggests the transition is coming soon.
Whether David Stern is ready to retire or not, it appears the NBA might be ready for him to.
Chris Paul's Final Season in New Orleans
The new labor agreement nearly nixed Chris Paul's seemingly inevitable flight to the New York Knicks.
Had the cap been lowered, the New Orleans Hornets been contracted or a "Franchise Tag" been added to the mix, Paul might have ended up elsewhere, but not in New York.
Paul seems to have enough class not to pull a Carmelo Anthony-inspired charade, but he's never expressed anything besides lukewarm lip service to the new Hornets regime.
The franchise is still league-owned, still stuck in neutral and still likely to lose its icon to the bright lights of Broadway by season's end.
The New Orleans Hornets' Final Season in Louisiana
The New Orleans Hornets are quickly becoming our generation's version of the 1949-1985 vagabonds now known as the Sacramento Kings.
The league-owned franchise will presumably still lose money with such shaky attendance patterns and is still without a potential buyer—though that could change now that a new CBA will be in place.
Though revenue sharing could prop up this New Orleans house of cards a little while longer, David Stern might just try to undo his greatest karmic fiasco while riding off into the sunset.
Don't be surprised when rumors begin flying by season's end that the Hornets are being sold to a Pacific Northwest ownership group as the second incarnation of the Seattle Supersonics.
The Sacramento Kings' Final Season in California's Capital
Many feel as if disaster was averted for the Sacramento Kings last season when their potential move to Anaheim fell through.
However, the NBA threw a life preserver to the Maloof brothers only because they knew the lockout was impending. The current Anaheim deal was a rushed hatchet job and they couldn't withstand another PR nightmare at the moment.
Though Mayor Kevin Johnson, Kings fans and the city of Sacramento will continue to admirably scramble up support, but don't be surprised when the money and a newer arena talks.
Anaheim will get a bulletproof proposal together now that they've got another year to work with and CBA certainty to bank on.
The Sacramento Kings will become the Anaheim Royals sooner than later.
Dwight Howard's Final Season with Orlando Magic
Though the new CBA will do more to protect the NBA's smaller market teams, it actually appears to have opened the doors further for mega-stars to move.
The Orlando Magic will undoubtedly attempt more offseason splashes in hopes of anchoring Dwight Howard long-term.
Unfortunately, they basically played out their hand last season with panic acquisitions of Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu. Those little ripples only left Dwight in the shallow end of the pool once more.
The Magic face the very real possibility of losing Howard for nothing at season's end.
Instead, Dwight Howard will follow in Shaquille O'Neal's career footsteps when the Los Angeles Lakers offer Andrew Bynum and a pick at the trade deadline.
Derrick Rose Becomes the NBA's Best Point Guard
However, Chris Paul turned in a nearly iconic season by dragging the incredibly limited New Orleans Hornets into the NBA Playoffs.
Deron Williams was no slouch either.
Those two were good enough—and have been superstars for that much longer—to realistically remain in the conversation with many fans.
Derrick Rose will end the discussion for good this year when his numbers jump yet again and he leads the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Finals.
Miami Heat Deal Chris Bosh at the Trade Deadline
Things happened so fast last year that Miami had to rush their designs, flanking their Big Three with over-the-hill parts and leftover scraps.
We all know how that turned out.
Due to the lockout, the Heat are facing the same prospects yet again.
They'll scramble to catch up, retool the roster on the fly and "struggle" enough early to hit the panic button by the deadline.
Bosh is the easiest to move and will be playing well enough to fetch an underachieving Brook Lopez, an otherwise redundant Jordan Farmar and a lackluster Kris Humphries from the New Jersey Nets.
Golden State Warriors Deal Monta Ellis Before the Season Starts
Monta Ellis was already on the block before last season ended, and safe money says the Golden State Warriors will seal the deal before this one starts.
Ellis is a fantastic quantity scorer, but the Warriors roster needs to lessen the redundancy around Steph Curry and David Lee.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have the cap space and a need for points in the worst way.
A deal for Michael Beasley or Wesley Johnson, along with Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver, would likely be enough to fetch Ellis if Minnesota agrees to absorb Andris Biedrins' contract.
Ricky Rubio Proves He Was Worth the Wait (Sort Of)
The NBA lockout threatened to send Ricky Rubio right back to Spain, voiding over two years of hand-wringing and second-guessing by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Wolves need a playmaker badly, along with another infusion of excitement.
Rubio will have plenty of outlets for Monta Ellis (see Slide 12), lobs for Derrick Williams and back-door cut bounce passes for Kevin Love.
At the same time, his streaky shooting and visibly suspect defense will prove him to be the second coming of Jason Williams, not "Pistol" Pete Maravich.
Greg Oden Has One More Season-Ending Injury
You've got to feel bad for a guy who's only played 82 games during the course of three seasons.
You feel worse for the Portland Trail Blazers knowing that they yet again passed over a once-in-a-generation scorer (Kevin Durant) for a good guy center who just couldn't stay healthy.
The extra time off has surely helped Greg Oden recover a little more fully from his microfracture knee surgery.
Yet, his legs are what they are, and Oden will continue his Sam Bowie impression one last time.
He'll alternate between re-acclimation and defensive impressiveness for about 30 more games before his body gives out again.
I've never felt worse for writing something like this, but I don't think Oden's career will make it past 2012.
Brandon Roy's Comeback
Brandon Roy's 2011 was derailed due to arthroscopic surgery on both knees. This came on the heels of a two-month, early-season span where he continued be one of the NBA's best shooting guards.
Plenty of analysts and fans alike wonder whether Roy's elite days are now behind him due to this body betrayal.
However, the extra time off, LaMarcus Aldridge's rise to offensive focal point and the emergence of Wes Matthews will breathe new life into Brandon Roy's career.
The Portland Trail Blazers no longer need to lean so heavily on Brandon Roy. He may never be as quick again, but playing far fewer minutes will allow Roy to maximize his strength and cagey offensive moves once more.
Indiana Pacers Trade Danny Granger
Danny Granger is a near-elite player who regressed as a cornerstone for the Indiana Pacers last season.
While the team has some interesting pieces in Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison, George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough, they don't yet have another clear building block to help Granger shoulder the load.
Granger has six seasons under his belt for the Pacers, but it's clear that he's reached his ceiling on this perpetually middling team.
Indiana needs to do anything to get some excitement back, and trading Danny Granger to Memphis for Rudy Gay might be a no-brainer "change of scenery" deal for both parties.
Memphis Grizzlies Trade Rudy Gay
There was a fair amount of buzz for the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of their 2011-12 season. That buzz turned to a roar come playoff time as the Grizz grew up and ripped through a series and a half of the postseason.
The curious thing was that the Grizzlies almost appeared to play better without Rudy Gay, as his season-ending injury coincided with their late surge.
It's hard to find a statistical category where Gay isn't better than Danny Granger: he's a few years younger, a better shooter and a more explosive athlete.
Memphis might try to flip Rudy Gay for a near-elite point guard, but Granger's greater versatility and slightly lower profile might be an easy mesh for a team that's looking to take the next step.
Tim Duncan's Final Season
No one mistook Tim Duncan for an elite power forward last year.
At the same time, he probably didn't get enough respect for still being consistently very good.
NBA big men decline surprisingly fast, and Tim Duncan has never struck me as a guy who will hang on past his expiration date.
Duncan can still be a valuable role player this season, but he'll probably call it a career once he's not a major contributor and/or the San Antonio Spurs aren't legitimate contenders anymore.
As of right now, both events seem to be just around the corner.
Los Angeles Clippers Host a Playoff Series
The Los Angeles Clippers were a fun train wreck last season: a limitlessly explosive team that couldn't play defense, couldn't close games and had no bench to speak of.
Why can it all change?
Firstly, the youthful core of Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan—if the Clippers are smart enough to re-sign him—will be a year older with a complete season for Vinny Del Negro under their belts.
What's more, the Western Conference's traditional powers are in stagnation or decline as upstarts like the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder begin to eat away at regular season wins.
The 1999 post-lockout season was topsy-turvy to say the least. If the Clippers can scrape together another legitimate bench contributor, they'll find that this 66-game road is surprisingly open for the fourth seed.
No One Notices the Charlotte Bobcats (as Usual)
As an NBA addict, I'm incredibly excited that the season appears to be saved.
Were I a Charlotte Bobcats fan—if they even exist at all—what would I have to be excited about?
Their building is perpetually empty, they've sold every shred of real talent for 30 cents on the dollar, grossly overpaid for every dollar's worth of actual skill, have no clear direction going forward, have an owner who just potentially ticked off every major free agent for the next half-decade and have the most androgynous uniforms and logo in the league.
I'm not a Bobcats hater or anything, just a truth teller.
This is one of the more ambiguously misguided expansion teams in any sport. Ever.
It's hard to see how they can avoid the same fate that befell the Hornets when in the same city.
Even Kemba Walker is already crying.
Kris Humphries Dates Eva Longoria
We all know Kris Humphries can rebound.
What better way to soothe a broken heart than with another who's been jilted?
While Eva Longoria might not be on the radar yet, the NBA season is back and so is she.
Though he's sure to cause the New Jersey Nets some buyer's remorse when they overpay for re-signing him, Humphries may become a hotter ticket when he's traded to the Miami Heat as part of a Chris Bosh deal (see Slide 11).
They won't light the paparazzi world on fire as when with their former paramours, but Kris and Eva will provide another fun sideshow to the Miami Heat media circus.
LeBron James Fails to Win a Championship (again)
He's still the most physically imposing player in the league. His team is still the most individually talented.
However, the book is out on how to slow down LeBron James during the playoffs, just as the Miami Heat's depth shortcomings are also obvious.
Miami now doesn't have enough time to completely reload around James and Dwyane Wade, but a mid-season trade of Chris Bosh for useful parts (see Slide 11) will set them on the right long-term track.
In the short-term, the Heat will continue falling short until they've had an actual offseason paired with on-court stability.
Once that happens, it won't matter whether LeBron is a clutch playoff performer or not. The Heat will be ready.
Maybe next year.
Kevin Durant Averages 35 Points Per Game
His numbers may have slightly dipped across the board last season, but Kevin Durant is poised for a career year.
The Oklahoma City Thunder won't make any major roster changes during this truncated offseason, but will once again rely on Durant and Russell Westbrook to take the next step.
Durant's been around for four seasons now, and while we're still not sure exactly which position he plays, we have seen him unleash some new facet of his game each year.
As he continues to evolve on the low block, Durant's limitless length and range will prove even more unstoppable.
With an extended offseason with which to recoup and develop, Kevin Durant will be the first player to average 35 points per game since Kobe Bryant accomplished the feat in 2005-06.
Kyrie Irving Wins Rookie of the Year
While it may not be as bad as 2000, the 2011 NBA Draft provided some potentially successful role players, but few actual superstars.
Enes Kanter and Derrick Williams are good fits for the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively. Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker and Jan Vesely will all have their moments.
However, Kyrie Irving will have the most immediate opportunities as he suits up for a talentedly-bereft Cleveland Cavaliers squad that is searching for their next "king."
He won't be the flashiest Rookie of the Year winner, but Kyrie Irving will have a solid season of guaranteed quantity that steadily improves quality-wise by the end.
An Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Chicago Bulls NBA Finals
Prematurely anointed last season, the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder were awfully close to realizing their potential anyways.
The Bulls need a little shooting guard help, while the Thunder could use a legitimate low post scorer.
Yet, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant might be the two quickest-rising superstars in the league. We still have no idea where their actual ceilings are.
Both teams are built solely around their driven leaders, flush with athletic supporting pieces and perfect-fit role players.
Oklahoma City and Chicago's upside and balance is greater than the experience and star power of their respective conference foes.
The official changing of the guard will happen this season.