After an NBA lockout that lasted longer than most people expected, the game has shifted from meeting rooms to locker rooms.
On Saturday, the NBA owners and players reached a tentative agreement to end the 149-day lockout. On Christmas Day, the NBA will be back to producing basketball, which will be a gift for everyone who loves hoops.
Unlike the lockout of 1998-1999, which produced a 50-game schedule, there will be 66 games this time around, but there might be additional resentment from fans. The economy isn't exactly booming, and an ugly labor debate that involved owners who have billions, with their workers who earn millions, won't exactly sit well with those making minimum wage.
Attendance and ratings will be of particular interest over the next six months. There are fans who were extremely turned off by the lockout, and may be disenchanted with this season.
Nevertheless, there is basketball to be played, which is far better than simply discussions about basketball being played. With a shortened season, everything will be on fast forward. General managers will have to make their free agent signings and trades in a more timely fashion. Players will have to speed up their preseason, and get to know their new teammates and coaches sooner.
Teams with less player and coaching turnover will have the edge. The more players know one another, and are more comfortable in their system, the better their prospects will be to make a strong run at the title.
In other words, look for the Miami Heat to come out firing. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh went to the Finals last season, and head coach Erik Spoelstra will be back in charge. The complimentary players to the Big Three will be important but since James, Wade, and Bosh having a year under their belts together, they likely go into the NBA season as the team to beat.
The Heat also have a chip on their shoulders. Last season, the Big Three were consistently dogged by questions of their leadership, and their ability to play together, as well as whether their chances to win a title were legitimate. The questions and criticisms will carry over into the upcoming season, and that will give the Heat even more incentive to win.
Then there are the teams standing in the Heat's way. The Dallas Mavericks will look to repeat as NBA Champions, but with perhaps some different faces. J.J. Barea, Caron Butler, Brian Cardinal, Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, and Peja Stojakovic are all unrestricted free agents. Meanwhile, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. General Manager Donnie Nelson and owner Mark Cuban have a lot of work to do. Though Dirk Nowitzki proved he can lead Dallas to a title, it might be much harder with different players and a shortened season.
The Los Angeles Lakers have a new coach, but no new point guard. Kobe Bryant desperately wants to win his sixth title to be even with his boyhood idol Michael Jordan, but Los Angeles still probably need an upgrade over Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. Replacing Phil Jackson won't be easy, so Mike Brown and his new coaching staff will need the Lakers to jump out of the gates with victories, and avoid slumps if he wants to convince Lakers' fans that the team can win without Jackson at the helm.
The Oklahoma City Thunder return with the best home atmosphere in the NBA, and no unrestricted free agents, as well as with perhaps the league's best player: Kevin Durant. While Scott Brooks's squad gave the Mavericks problems in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder will need improved play from players like Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka if they expect to build off last season's strong run.
A shortened season might be just what the Celtics need. Boston appears to be on the verge of a rebuilding process as stars Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett have entered their mid-30s. GM Danny Ainge might consider making deals now in a shortened season where a poor final record might be easily forgotten, or he can roll the dice by strengthen the roster this season by perhaps sacrificing the future in hopes of winning a title. Boston still has Rajon Rondo, and their star veterans under contract. But the Celtics also have seven unrestricted free agents, and no NBA team has more.
While Ainge considers making his deals, there are big names who might be moved. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and many others might be dealt as teams don't want to lose their players via free agency without receiving compensation.
Get ready for a turbulent, and perhaps exciting, 2011-2012 NBA season.