From the dismal prospect of a no-show to riding through a shortened, action-packed, enthralling period, the 2011-12 NBA regular season provided fans across the world one of the most exciting campaigns in recent times. After the labour lockout threatened to cancel the entire season in the months of October and November, the focus was entirely on basketball beginning December 25. It was the perfect Christmas Day gift to fans, who wanted no letting up in the excitement built from the Dallas Mavericks-Miami Heat showdown in the 2011 NBA Finals.
A fascinating 124-day period ensued. The New York Knicks were the textbook definition of rollercoaster. The Chicago Bulls managed the best regular season record, despite their All-Star point-guard, Derrick Rose, missing as many as 27 games for the franchise. Boston’s veterans appeared to be fading into the sunset until a sudden fillip post the All-Star break led them to finish as Atlantic Division Champions. Gregg Popovich built a solid supporting cast around his veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to produce another title contender in San Antonio for the ‘nth’ time. There was ‘Dwama’ in Orlando in as much as Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace had the scribes working overtime in Los Angeles. Portland had a good start to the season, before a slump in February and March forced their management to dismantle their roster at the trade deadline (March 15).
On the individual front, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett proved that the vets could still play. Kobe Bryant had the hot-hand for most of the season, while Kevin Durant and LeBron James made the battle for regular season MVP pretty much a two-man affair. Rajon Rondo came up big with his six triple-doubles while Kevin Love was huge on the scoring and rebounding boards with 48 double-doubles.
Yet, despite all these happenings, some stories stood out more than the others. Here is a quick look at five of them, which will always be mentioned whenever the 2011-12 campaign is referred to in the basketball universe:
The Lockout itself: After Dirk Nowitzki, and his supporting cast of solid role players, led the Dallas Mavericks to their first-ever NBA title against the Super Friends in Miami, the fans wanted more. Instead, what they got was a lockout that seemingly stretched on forever. As the NBPA and the league got into hectic negotiations to ratify a new system that would help turnaround the profitability of the league, all the stakeholders took a hit. Training camps were cancelled, jobs were lost and the cancellation of each month of the season cost the players around $350 million in lost pay. As the days stretched into weeks and then into months, reputations on both sides of the bargaining table took a hit. Finally, however, better sense prevailed. Both sides agreed to terms for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement on December 8, but not before the 82-game regular season schedule made way for a shortened, 66-game season.
Hectic schedule, injuries galore: In another time – Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups would form part of an All-Star team. In this crunched up season though, all these superstars, with a host of other names, formed part of the injured list for varying lengths of time. As the back-to-back-to-back games became the norm, with teams often playing as many as four games in five nights, the meds worked overtime to cope up with the banged up bodies. Ricky Rubio (Minnesota Timberwolves) was perhaps the biggest loss felt by any franchise hoping to make it to the Playoffs, while Dwight Howard’s herniated disk certainly eliminates the Magic’s chances of brining home the Larry O’Brien trophy this season. Some other prominent names that weren’t available all through the season for their respective ball clubs were Amar’e Stoudemire (New York Knicks), Jeremy Lin (New York Knicks), Manu Ginobili (San Antonio), Al Horford (Atlanta Hawks), Zach Randolph (Memphis Grizzlies), Andrew Bogut (Golden State Warriors, but was a member of the Milwaukee Bucks at the time of the ankle injury) and LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland Trail Blazers).
The Bobcats were definitely MJ’s Waterloo: If there was a team that consistently disappointed their fans across the season, it were Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats. They won just a handful of games through the months of December, January, February, March and April to finish at 7-59 (win percentage - 0.106) thereby setting a new record for the worst season by an NBA team in history. No matter which way you look at it, Charlotte weren’t just good enough for the 29 other teams in the league. They lost their last 23 games of the campaign (a franchise record), were last in the league in scoring and shooting percentage, and lost 22 games by 20 or more points. Paul Silas, head coach since December 2010, paid the price of the Bobcats’ woeful run with the franchise finally deciding to part ways with him on April 30.
Was there a better show than ‘Dwama’?: First he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t and then he finally did. Or wait, was it the other way around? That is exactly how Dwight Howard’s saga of committing himself to the Orlando franchise played itself until March 15 when the All-Star center finally decided to commit himself to the Magic for one more season. And if that flip-flop wasn’t enough, Stan Van Gundy’s admission to the press that Dwight wanted him out followed immediately by Howard’s hand around Van Gundy’s shoulder was the worst advertisement of things not being well at Orlando. Perhaps, Howard’s injury at the end of the regular season was the only way the curtain could be brought down on a show that truly went out of hand.
Linsanity and the Knicks – two opposite ends of the spectrum: As my co-writer Karan Madhok correctly called it, the Knicks were a tale of four seasons rolled into one. And in those four seasons, Jeremy Lin, who emerged out of nowhere, represented the very best side of the NBA. In Lin’s emergence, the traditional notion of hard work eventually having its day out in the sun stood vindicated. Here was a Harvard grad, who before those heady few weeks in February, didn’t have a couch of his own to sleep on, but was suddenly garnering more spotlight than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and all his New York teammates put together. On either side of Lin’s emergence, though, the Knicks, despite the presence of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, just couldn’t forge together a winning unit. They were 8-15 until early February, then went an amazing 9-3 as Linsanity mania gripped the NBA, before going 1-6 in a run that finally cost Mike D’Antoni his coaching job. There would, nevertheless, be one final twist in the tale as D’Antoni’s assistant, Mike Woodson, stepped in to take over the head coaching assignment. Woodson went on an 18-6 run to help the Knicks finish with a 36-30 regular season record and the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.