2011 in NBA: Unexpected heroes

ESPNSTAR.com looks back at a dramatic 2010-2011 NBA season that was full of surprises and unexpected heroes.

Basketball News: Dallas Mavericks
Kelvin Yap

By Kelvin Yap

When January came around, the team that inevitably came under most scrutiny were the Miami Heat, partly due to their 'Holy Trinity' of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and partly due to their excellent record coming into 2011.

After a slow 8-9 start to the season, they'd picked up the pace in December with a superb 15-1 record, firmly establishing themselves as favourites to win the NBA Championship. Their seemingly inexorable run to the NBA Championship was juxtaposed with LeBron James' switch to the Heat. Although it had happened the previous summer, the story had serious legs, rumbling on well into the new year.

James explained his move on 'The Decision', the hour-long show dedicated to his, uh, decision to move from the Cavaliers after seven years, saying: "I feel like it [the move] is going to give me the best opportunity to win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season."

Of course, the move was pilloried by Cleveland fans, who considered Cleveland born-and-bred James as their talisman.

Gilbert, owner of Cleveland Cavaliers, wrote an open letter to the fans, labelling James as "cowardly" and "bitterly disappointing" and even guaranteed that "Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former 'King' wins one."

Miami Heat finished the regular season with a 58-24, .707 percentage record, second in the Eastern Conference behind Chicago Bulls. In comparison, the Cavaliers set an unwanted record of having the longest losing streak in the NBA, stretching from 18 December 2010 to 11 February 2011.

The Cavs ended the regular season last in the conference with a 19-63, .232 record, one of the worst in franchise history. Thus the wounds of betrayal were salted with near-catastrophic failure.

The year of change

2011 also signalled a change of guard in the NBA.

Young stars are always rising through the ranks in the game, but occasionally the sprinkling turns into a torrent - refreshing the sport by infusing it with fresh blood.

Oklahoma City Thunder, the youngest team in the league whose starting five averaged out to an age of 24.4 years old, impressed everyone especially with the prolific duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The team averaged just under 105 points per game and topped their division. With more time to improve and gel in the off-season, the Thunder are likely to go from strength to strength.

Signs of a new generation taking over are also apparent in other teams.

Chicago Bulls' point guard Derrick Rose proved to be the biggest surprise package this year, becoming the youngest NBA MVP in history at 22 years old.

Rose looks destined to put his name among the greats after becoming only the third player in the past 30 years of the NBA to record 2,000 points and 600 assists in a single season, the other two players being LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

The native Chicagoan guided the Bulls to top of the conference with the best win-loss record of 62-20, succumbing only to Miami Heat in the conference finals, their most impressive season since the Jordan era.

On the other hand, seasoned campaigners have started to show their decline.

The Boston Celtics are a prime example. Although they did well in regular season, topping the Atlantic Division, the veterans in the team couldn't quite carry their energy over in the playoffs, where they lost to Miami Heat.

It's undeniable that the team is aging and it's more than apparent. The age of their starting five is a good indicator. Except for Rajon Rondo (24), the rest of them, Jermaine O'Neal (33), Kevin Garnett (35), Paul Pierce (34), Ray Allen (36), are well into the twilight of their careers.

Two-time defending champions LA Lakers appear to be headed down the same path as well. The Lakers still have the personnel in their team to strike fear into their opponents, but like the Celtics, the names that carry the team are on the wrong side of their primes.

Superstar Kobe Bryant looks far older than the 32 years old after carrying the franchise for the best part of the past 15 years while Ron Artest seems to be letting his eccentricities get the better of him, changing his name to Metta World Peace in September in an attempt to inspire the young around the world.

And then there's Derek Fisher, who at 37 years old is looking at his final stint at the Lakers before his contract runs out in 2013. With legendary coach Phil Jackson announcing his retirement at the end of the season, the curtain came down on a glittering era for the Lakers. Their coach is gone - it's only a matter of time before the players follow suit.

San Antonio Spurs complete the set of teams whose age has been visibly troubling them. For one, the team was over-reliant on 35-year old Tim Duncan throughout the season.

When Duncan missed 6 of the Spurs' final 12 games through injury, the Spurs had a 4-8 record, including a 6 game losing streak at one point. They had to turn to Manu Ginobili, who at 34 years old isn't the quickest shooting guard around, and Tony Parker, who isn't quite the same player since his divorce from Eva Longoria in January.

Mavericks buck the trend

The only team that proved an exception were the Dallas Mavericks, and most fans would never in their dreams have begrudged the veterans in that team of a championship ring.

The Mavs surprised everyone with their strong postseason showing, clean sweeping defending champions LA Lakers in the conference semi-finals and easing to a 4-2 win over the star-studded Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

Dirk Nowitzki was finally rewarded with a NBA title for 13 years of excellent service, a fitting contrast in a season where superstar James finally left his home team after seven years. He carried the Mavericks through the final with his all-round game, topping his team in average points and rebounds over the six games.

The 38-year-old Jason Kidd, a two-time NBA losing finalist during his time with the New Jersey Nets, returned to the franchise he started his career with and was duly rewarded with an unexpected NBA title at the fag end of his career.

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was understandably proud. He said of his battle-hardened veteran: "For the rest of their lives, they are world champions. They are so deserving."

The one percent that costs billions

On July 1, 2011, the fourth lockout in NBA history began upon expiration of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement.

During the lockout, teams could not trade, sign or contact players, and players could not access NBA team facilities, trainers or staffs, which meant that non-playing jobs were on the line as well.

The NBA Players' Association (NBPA), headed by LA Lakers' Derek Fisher, were in negotiations with the franchise owners to negotiate a new deal but both sides failed to agree on several key issues, though not for lack of trying.

"Everyone loses if we don't reach an agreement, that's something that I think has always been understood," said union president Fisher.

 "I will say we are not apart in terms of an agreed urgency on getting a deal done," said NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver.

The main points of contention were a new salary cap for the teams and how basketball-related income (BRI) was to be split. Franchise owners claimed that they were losing money and needed more than the 43% of BRI, but the players were unwilling to budge from their stance of having less than 52% of the BRI.

Long story short, the players were unwilling to accept having less than 53% of the BRI and both sides were unable to agree on a deal. Federal mediator George Cohen, who negotiated the 2011 NFL lockout, was brought in but to no avail and the NBA season was cancelled up till 15 December.

On November 26, after 15 hours of talks, a tentative deal was reached and a shortened season will start from Christmas Day. The players had to compromise for 51.2 percent of BRI in 2011-12, with a 49-to-51 band in subsequent years on top of other salary cap clauses.

However, the damage was already done.

The lockout cost the players around $350 million in lost pay. According to CNBC, the average player lost $220,000 after the first missed paycheck on November 15. Externally, $2.7 billion was lost in the TV license market.

An exciting year ahead

Despite the negative impact it had, the lockout may just be a blessing in disguise. For one, it will certainly make the normally drawn out regular season more interesting to watch.

With a blockbuster clash between Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks on Christmas to kickstart the shortened campaign, each regular season win has more value than it does in the past. And hopefully, it will teach the younger players a valuable lesson on how money isn't everything.

So, here's to an excellent 2012, hopefully filled with as many surprises and unexpected heroes as 2011.

Award winners

Most Valuable Player - Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

Rookie of the Year - Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers

Defensive Player of the Year - Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

Most Improved Player - Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

Sixth Man of the Year - Lamar Odom, L.A. Lakers

Coach of the Year - Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

All-Star Game MVP - Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

Finals MVP - Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

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