A funny thing happened on the way to the 2011-12 NBA season. Well, a few funny things and dozens of not-so-funny things.
All we had was a five-month lockout marked by some classic, bizarre sports and media moments; separate insurrections within both the players association and ownership; two of the biggest stars in the league wanting to get traded; one of them actually getting traded, only to have the trade voided so he could be traded again (to a team that inhabits the very same arena); a beleaguered commissioner transformed into a general manager; a free-agent frenzy that rivaled the July 2010 extravaganza, even though it was neither July nor extravagant; and finally, mercifully, the tipoff of actual basketball games.
What happens now? With a compressed, 66-game season featuring back-to-back-to-backs, five games in six nights and unforgiving travel, the product almost certainly will suffer -- as will the players' health, as Kobe Bryant already can attest. There seems to be no way around a little ugliness creeping in and mixing with the sense of relief that the NBA is back.
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Back to what, exactly? The engaging product that connected with fans last spring and summer in ways that the game hadn't enjoyed since Michael Jordan was at the height of his powers? Or the dysfunctional mess that was exposed when layer after layer was peeled away through the unsightly sideshow of a labor dispute followed by the ongoing tug-of-war between players and owners?
The marquee Christmas Day schedule has been preserved, and with it a money-making event for the league and the TV networks. But if Christmas games have been a letdown in recent years under the best of circumstances, there's no telling what level of discombobulation awaits at the bottom of David Stern's chimney.
Like it or not, the NBA returns Sunday with five intriguing matchups, leading off with the contender-worthy Knicks and free-agent addition Tyson Chandler against the aging but still dangerous Celtics. So begins a four-month sprint to the playoffs for the NBA, whose lockout will wind up being longer than the regular season that was salvaged.
To say it will be a mixed bag filled with surprises will prove to be an understatement, but there are a few constants we can count on: The Heat and Bulls are the class of the East, and the guard could be changing in the West with Oklahoma City and Memphis seeking to fill the vacuum left by the Lakers if they struggle as much as it appears they will. This season, it seems, will be even more difficult to predict than the lockout was.
But since basketball predictions are more fun than lockout predictions, it's time to reveal how I think the 2011-12 will go. And since the season itself will have an asterisk affixed to it, so too will my predictions. Before you take them to the bank, read the fine print: Nobody really knows how this is going to turn out (but it's fun to pretend).
MVP: Dwyane Wade, Heat. He can do it all, and usually does for the Heat. Now, the end of D-Wade's regular-season MVP drought is long overdue. The biggest reason I think so: In his second year with the Heat, LeBron James won't feel compelled to prove anything and instead will play the role(s) that suit him best: just be a great all-around player, an elite defender at as many as five positions, and let D-Wade carry the offensive load.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers. My second consecutive year taking the easy way out and predicting the No. 1 pick in the draft will win the ROY award. The two key prerequisites for this award are ability and opportunity. We know Irving has the first, and with Baron Davis' departure, he'll have plenty of the second. There's no way Irving's hype will come close to matching Jimmer Mania in Sacramento, but his production will be more than enough to win top rookie honors.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Magic (?): Whether Howard finishes the season in Orlando, New Jersey or Los Angeles, he'll finish it as the undisputed best defensive player in the game. How's that for going out on a limb? Howard may be distracted by the trade/free-agency drama; in fact, he's proven himself to be mentally weaker than the last two superstars to go through this, LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. Maybe the pressure compels Howard to overcompensate and try to do too much on the offensive end, but if he just locks in on defense and lets the offense come naturally, this award will be his to lose.
Sixth Man of the Year: Mo Williams, Clippers. It's time for someone besides Jason Terry, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford to be mentioned for this award. The Clips' Williams is in a perfect situation to shine in the Terry role off the bench: providing instant offense behind both Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups at either guard spot.
Coach of the Year: Rick Adelman, Timberwolves. It's a crime Adelman has never been voted the league's best coach; not as criminal as Jerry Sloan never winning the award, but still, a slight that must someday be corrected. He doesn't have anywhere near as talented a team as some of those he coached in Portland, Sacramento or Houston, and that may well doom his chances. But much to the Hornets' chagrin (New Orleans got Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round pick in the Chris Paul trade), I think the Wolves will be better than advertised. If anyone can get the most out of this weird roster David Kahn has assembled, it's Adelman.
Surprise Team (East): Knicks. New York isn't a title contender yet, but with Boston and Orlando slipping, there's an opening for a team to emerge at the start of the second tier after Miami and Chicago. Why not the Knicks? They have two of the best offensive players in the league, more depth than a year ago and an answer for their most glaring weakness: defense. I applaud both the Mavs' decision not to pay Chandler, since doing so would've eaten up valuable 2012 cap space, and the Knicks' decision to pay him, since he directly addressed a need. My prediction-within-a-prediction for the Knicks: Anthony emerges as the star you can't take your eyes off in the early weeks of the season. He feels the criticism and the challenge to become a committed defender and all-around star, and I believe he will embrace it. If he does, and if Davis is healthy and engaged come springtime, the Knicks will become the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs -- including the Bulls and Heat.
Demise Team (East): Magic. Oh, this could really end badly for Orlando. As wise as using the amnesty provision on Gilbert Arenas was, it didn't create any real cap room, and it upset Howard because he's close to the former All-Star. The Magic still have all the flaws they had last season, and they could be months away from having no choice but to trade Howard.
Surprise Team (West): Trail Blazers. Greg Oden suffered another setback, and the loss of Brandon Roy to chronic knee injuries is even more devastating. But the Blazers still have LaMarcus Aldridge and one of the most resourceful coaches in the game. Somehow, Nate McMillan always finds a way.
Demise Team (West): Lakers. Not that getting Chris Paul would've made the Lakers indisputably better, but giving Lamar Odom away and having to wait until the trade deadline for a shot at Howard means the Lakers could be in for a rocky three months. Kobe (wrist) already is hurt, L.A. hasn't addressed its point-guard problem, and the Lakers will be relying on Andrew Bynum more than ever. Given his health history, this may not be a good thing. I'm not quite ready to say the Lakers aren't the best team in L.A., but as currently constructed, they're certainly not the best team in the West anymore.
Eastern Conference Finals: Bulls over Heat. In an epic rematch of last season's conference finals, Derrick Rose won't have to do it all. Rip Hamilton provides exactly what the Bulls were lacking -- another scoring punch and a release valve for Rose, who too often was reduced to going 1-on-5 against Miami. The Heat will be better and more balanced than they were a year ago too, but don't underestimate the competitive fire that burns within Rose, who will have the tools, structure and stability he needs to exact revenge.
Western Conference Finals: Thunder over Mavericks. In this rush-job of a season, with so many teams going through changes, the Thunder are a model of consistency. If ever there were a time that favors a maturing team that has grown up together and doesn't need time to find itself, this would be it. The Mavs aren't as good or as deep as they were when they hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June, and it will show in their rematch against the Thunder, who they beat in five games in last season's conference finals. If Howard is still under contract with the Magic at that point, the sting won't last long for Mavs fans. Mark Cuban will be a couple of moves away from clearing enough cap space to lure both Howard and Deron Williams as free agents.
NBA Finals: Bulls over Thunder. See? Competitive balance lives! Big market vs. small market for the NBA title. Well, um, the collective bargaining agreement that went into effect earlier this month had nothing to do with how the Bulls and Thunder were built. But rather than viewing this as a big market-small market thing, hopefully America can just enjoy it for what it is: a matchup of two elite teams that defend and play the right way and have two of the smartest coaches and brightest stars in the game. The TV ratings won't be the stuff of a Lakers-Celtics finals, but you'd have to live in Seattle not to enjoy this.