The year the NBA got over the hump, even if it didn’t initially look like it was possible …
Let’s just say it was a good time for a memorable postseason, with the improbable rise of the precocious Thunder, until going up 1-0 over the Heat, which didn’t turn out to be comprised of choking, mercenary divas, after all.
Otherwise, the 2011-12 season would have gone down as the one when the NBA locked the players out until Christmas, then jammed 66 games into 121 days to get some of their money back with back-to-back-to-backs and veterans gasping like beached whales.
Just to show you how improbable this was, fans said they liked starting on Christmas… and David Stern agreed!
At the end, of course, we got a bright new star… or, at least a star we just banished forever, or until he won a title, whichever came first.
Predictably, the press, which always turns out to be right—since, it writes the history–didn’t say much about its absurdity in denouncing LeBron James for leaving Cleveland, which no one outside Cleveland cares about any more, and two festive incidents of bad manners.
Instead, everyone agreed, LeBron Learned His Lesson!
Bron did learn a lot of lessons, as he himself noted, describing the times he literally looked in the mirror, as before Game 6 in Boston with his team one loss from even greater humiliation, and asked himself what he would do to stop it.
He went for 45, led the Heat into the Finals where he averaged 29-10-7 and took them to the Promised Land, noting upon arrival:
“About damned time!”
As for turning himself around, he did that years ago.
Spectacular as he was, he wasn’t anyone he hadn’t been for years, with an unfortunate game or week here and there.
(If you don’t believe it, ask the people who voted him three MVPs in four seasons. They’re the same ones who bashed him after the postseasons.)
James really did change after a Finals loss – the one in 2007 to San Antonio, not last season’s to Dallas.
Going into the 2007-08 season, Bron, then 22, was such a diva, Bruce Bowen, his U.S. teammate before being cut prior to the 2006 World Championship in Japan, reportedly asked: Have you ever heard the words “please” or “Thank You?”
Perhaps not coincidentally, they lost in the semifinals—to Greece–unable to guard the high pick-and-roll the Greeks ran over and over, a shocking lapse for a Mike Krzyzewski team, with James notable among the slackers on D.
The next summer, Kobe Bryant, injured the year before, joined the team, literally throwing himself into it from the first possession when he dove on the floor to take the ball from a young Venezuelan guard named Greivis Vasquez at the FIBA-Americas qualifying tournament in Las Vegas.
A new, defense-minded U.S. team emerged, along with a new Bron, the one who started chasing NBA opponents down and blocking their layups.
Nor were there any more stories about Bron, the pain.
With the elders, Bryant and Jason Kidd, taking over leadership in Beijing in 2008, James was the life of the party, emceeing practices, winning over, among others, no-nonsense Kobe.
Of course, there was that little perception problem in 2010 when Bron said he would take his talents to South Beach and, upon arrival, promised eight titles.
Of course, he was set up both times, by 1) ESPN, and 2), the Heat, neither of which realized what it was doing.
Not that it hard to figure out. Stern tried to talk Bron’s people out of the TV show. Nike, his prime sponsor, avoided any visible association, letting Vitaminwater step up, with no Swooshes on the set.
If it made Bron’s life hell with those of Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley, et al, but it wasn’t anything they couldn’t overcome … with bumper TV ratings along the way.
So, everyone made out, after all!
(OK, everyone except Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who apparently takes his role as Bron’s albatross seriously, tweeting his congratulations to the Heat without mentioning James, serving only to remind everyone that Gilbert vowed his team would win one first, and, of course, takes himself way too seriously.)
The Finals were pure box office before fizzling with the Thunder losing the last four and disappearing in the finale, but still got a 10.1 TV rating.
For the NBA and its new rival, the once-lordly World Series, 10.0 is now the line between good and embarrassing.
The Finals had never out-drawn the World Series until the ‘90s, when it did it five times, in Michael Jordan’s last five title runs.
MJ went away in 1998, taking the NBA with him, but was back (in 2001 with the Wizards) a long time before the Finals caught baseball again.
In 2006, a six-game Mavs-Heat series replete with story lines as the Mavs gagged, Mark Cuban railed and Stern fined, drew a ho-hum 8.5.
The Spurs’ 2007 sweep of James’ Cavaliers drew a record-low 6.2, beating the previous record low, set only four years before by the Spurs and Nets.
In 2008, even a six-game Lakers-Celtics revival drew only a 9.3.
With the 2008 World Series’ record-low 8.4 for the Phillies and Rays, the Finals beat the Fall Classic for the first time without Jordan.
The Finals have since outdrawn the World Series in 2010 and 2011, with 10-plus ratings.
Financially, the NBA has never been in a better place with its owners getting the CBA management dreamed of since getting the first U.S. salary cap in 1983 on terms more favorable to players.
Now with a lid on expenses and big new local TV deals coming online—with the league and its network partners likely to extend their own deal next—the small markets are off death watch.
The league just got $350 million for the Hornets, with the stipulation they’ll stay in New Orleans.
Memphis owner Michael Heisley, who lost a chance to unload his turkey, er, franchise, in 2007 when Christian Laettner et al couldn’t come up with $252 million, just sold it for a reported $350 mill.
Not that it’s easy to rejoice for the owners, since they’re still crying poor mouth with Jim Buss of the fattest-cat Lakers noting, “We have historically spent a lot of money. That has to change.”
Indeed, the Laker tax bill, which used to run about $15-20 million, will double, or even triple.
Of course, with their new $150 million Time Warner deal… the Lakers, who averaged a net profit of $38 million over the last 10 years, according to Forbes, may now go over $100 million.
If the Busses can’t hack it at these numbers, I bet we could find 1,000,000 people to put up $100 each and take it off their hands.
(Bill Simmons might put up the first 100K just to sponsor a bonfire with the Laker banners.)
It’s a Buss family tradition to lament they’re a mom-and-pop store, competing with the likes of Paul Allen. Not that it’s so easy for the richest NBA owner of them all, says Allen.
After throwing his weight into the labor talks and setting the season back a few weeks, the Microsoft co-founder and Trail Blazer un-doer showed why, hinting about selling the team (again) as it sank like a stone, fired Nate McMillan bade farewell to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.
Unfortunately for Blazer fans, Allen then said he didn’t mean it (again.)
You can see where it took one heckuva of a postseason to make us forget all that.
Thank heavens for small favors.
Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear every Wednesday during the regular season, and his columns and video reports appear regularly here. Follow him on Twitter.