It was a memorable year for the NBA, albeit not an altogether positive one.
From the thrilling play of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies to the rise of MVP Derrick Rose and the resurgent Chicago Bulls to the Dallas Mavericks upsetting the Big Three of the Miami Heat, the 2011 playoffs seemingly launched the NBA toward a brighter, more prosperous era. Young stars like Rose, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin appeared ready to help take the torch from the old guard of Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Tim Duncan. New rivalries were born. Even the New York Knicks appeared to be enjoying a renaissance after landing Carmelo Anthony in a midseason trade.
And yet that momentum ground to a halt on July 1 when the NBA entered what would ultimately become an ugly, divisive five-month lockout that exposed the league in all its greed and ego. The standoff between the league's owners – who implemented the lockout – and players ultimately came to an end early on the morning on Nov. 26. But neither side was particularly happy with the collective bargaining agreement, which, at first appearance, did little to deter one of the NBA's biggest problems.
Before the labor deal was even ratified, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard – two of the league's biggest stars – both demanded trades from their franchises to big-market teams. Paul received his wish when the NBA intervened and sent him to the Los Angeles Clippers – after first blocking a deal to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Say this for the NBA: It never lacks for drama. 2011 again proved that much, and 2012 will likely do the same.
Here are the top five NBA stories of 2011:
With apologies to Alex English, Dan Issel and David Thompson, Anthony might have been the most popular player in Denver Nuggets history. That changed when Anthony's agent asked the Nuggets to trade his client. Anthony was pushing for a deal with the Knicks, but the New Jersey Nets became involved in talks and tried to lure him to the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel.
The Knicks weren't going to trade star forward Amar'e Stoudemire and didn't have any other elite players to offer. New York, however, did have some young talent and draft picks. Just days before the trade deadline, Melo received his wish: The Knicks acquired him in a three-team trade that also included the Minnesota Timberwolves. Born in New York, Anthony received a hero's welcome.
However, Anthony's return to the Big Apple wasn't all fun. He was criticized for shooting too much and defending too little. The Knicks also lost in the first round in the playoffs against Boston with point guard Chauncey Billups missing much of the series with an injury.
Anthony did leave a legacy in 2011: His successful trade demand ended up becoming a blueprint for Paul and Howard to follow.
Sloan was the first to go, retiring on Feb. 10 after 22 seasons as coach of the Utah Jazz. He left with 1,221 wins, third-most in NBA history, having coached the same team longer than anyone in league history.
A hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach, Sloan always seemed to get the most from his Jazz teams. They made the playoffs 15 times under him and reached the Finals twice. He retired one night after arguing with star point guard Deron Williams at halftime of a loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Jackson didn't share Sloan's longevity, but he was unmatched in success. He won 11 championships as coach of the Bulls and Lakers, yet went out in unlikely fashion, retiring after the Dallas Mavericks swept the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs.
Jackson actually looked relieved as he walked into retirement, and why should he hang his head? He left as the league's greatest coach – and one of the best ever in U.S. professional team sports.
Two future Hall of Fame centers also retired, including one of the league's most dominant players ever. O'Neal announced his retirement on June 1, ending a 19-year career that saw him win four championships and help lead the Orlando Magic, Lakers and Miami Heat to the Finals.
Slowed by injuries and age in his later years, O'Neal was an intimidating force for the first 15 of those seasons. He won the 2000 MVP award and left the NBA ranked fifth all-time in scoring. He was never far from the camera and his post-playing career on TNT's NBA crew should keep him in the spotlight.
Yao showed so much potential to develop into one of Shaq's rivals when he first arrived from China as the top pick of the 2002 draft. He eventually helped return the Houston Rockets to the playoffs, but could never stay healthy. A giant at 7-foot-6, Yao was remarkably skilled for his size. The problem: The same body that made him so dominant also failed him.
After years of lower-body injuries, Yao finally announced his retirement on July 20. Given how much he helped the NBA – and the sport of basketball, in general – grow in the world's largest country, Yao is expected to someday join Shaq in the Hall of Fame.
The Heat entered the playoffs carrying grand expectations after signing James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade. After some early struggles, the Heat warmed up prior to the start off the postseason and rode that momentum to the Eastern Conference finals. With Wade ailing, James was masterful in the conference finals, scoring at will and shutting down the Bulls' Rose to send Miami to its second NBA Finals appearance.
Miami seemed poised to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the Finals over the Mavericks, but blew a huge lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2 as Dallas evened the series. James was never the same. He became passive offensively, preferring to hover around the perimeter instead of trying to take the ball to the basket.
Dirk Nowitzki was the opposite. He took control of the series, and Wade couldn't keep James and the Heat from being eliminated on their home floor in Game 6. James didn't help himself after the season-ending loss, taunting his critics by saying his life – even after losing – was still better than theirs.
Stern's approval ratings weren't high after the lockout ended, and they dropped even more when he shockingly vetoed the New Orleans Hornets' decision to trade Paul to the Lakers on Dec. 8. The Hornets had agreed to a three-team deal with the Lakers and Houston Rockets that would have sent Paul to L.A. while the Hornets would have gotten Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic. The Lakers also would have sent Pau Gasol to the Rockets in the blockbuster trade.
Stern blocked the deal at the last moment, citing "basketball reasons" and his authority over all Hornets' decisions since the league took ownership of the franchise in December 2010. Yet Stern's decision also came after rival owners protested the trade, saying the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to help stop the exodus of top stars to league's big-market franchises.
The three teams tried to reassemble the trade, but the Lakers eventually backed out when it became clear Stern would not be appeased. After the Lakers traded Odom to the Mavericks, the NBA engaged the Clippers in trade talks while pushing Hornets general manager Dell Demps out of the decision-making process. On Dec. 14, the NBA and Clippers finally struck a deal: In return for Paul and two future second-round picks, the Clippers sent Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2012 unprotected draft pick to the Hornets.
Stern made good on his mandate to receive young players and draft picks in return for Paul, but the league's credibility was hurt as a result of the process.
Said Kobe Bryant: "The Lakers tried to make a move to get a player here who could carry them on to the next 10 years after I retire. But the other owners weren't with it. Simple as that."
With the NBA claiming 22 of its 30 teams were losing money, the league locked out its players on July 1, triggering a tedious five-month labor battle that didn't lack for its own drama.
Wade pointed his finger at Stern in one heated negotiating session. A group of hardline owners – led by none other than Michael Jordan – were willing to scrap the entire season to get the deal they wanted. The players had their own issues with union executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher battling for control. In the meantime, some players took job internships and went back to college. Others went overseas to play. A string of charity games was launched throughout the country.
The likelihood of a season seemed bleak as the players turned down Stern's ultimatum proposal in mid-December, opting instead to dissolve the union and take their fight to court. With Stern facing pressure to get the season started by Christmas, the owners eventually conceded some key issues to the players and a handshake deal was made early on the morning of Nov. 26.
The players took a major hit in the agreement, reducing their take of revenue from 57 percent to 50. But given the poor economy – and some owners' willingness to dig in – many players didn't feel like they had much leverage. A 66-game season was better than missing more paychecks.
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