BY JEFF ANGUS
The NBA had quite a year in 2012. Thanks to the 2011 lockout, the 2011-12 season got off to a very late start, and the top basketball players in the world returned to play a heavily condensed season. The NBA has more marketable superstars than all of the other professional sports leagues put together, and you could make the argument that the basketball we are seeing right now is the best it has been in a decade.
Fans of small market teams may point to a lack of parity, but changes in the new CBA will prevent teams from building stacked rosters from top to bottom. For the teams around the league with multiple superstars (Miami, Oklahoma City, and the Lakers, to name a few), they are forced to find bargain players to fill out the rest of their rosters.
Let’s take a look back at some of the biggest stories from the NBA in 2012.
LEBRON JAMES GETS HIS RING
After enduring years of (largely undeserved) criticism from fans and media, LeBron quieted his critics with one of the best performances in league history last season. He captured the regular season MVP title with relative ease over Kevin Durant (who became only the seventh player in NBA history to win three consecutive scoring titles), and took his game to another level in the postseason. LeBron’s performance against the Thunder in the NBA Finals was other-worldly, but his best game of the year came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Celtics last spring (45 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists).
LeBron has matured a lot in the past few years, both on the court and off. He is impossible to guard – the only thing stopping him from winning multiple championships is the decline of Dwayne Wade (although many believe Wade is saving his energy for another long playoff run).
THE BEARD TAKES FLIGHT IN HOUSTON
The James Harden trade was a major shock to the basketball world – how often do potential franchise players get traded at the age of 24? The Thunder, already having committed big money to Westbrook and Durant, opted to move Harden this past summer and maximize the return for him. Harden was sent to the Houston Rockets in exchange for scorer Kevin Martin and a few other future assets. Harden has been great for the Rockets, and Martin has seamlessly transitioned into Harden’s role as sixth man in Oklahoma City.
The trade looks to be a win for both teams – the Rockets added a potential superstar, an invaluable asset in today’s NBA, and the Thunder received cap flexibility, extended their window to win long into the future, and showed a lot of confidence in Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. The trio have made the decision look like a good one – especially Ibaka, who has improved his overall game leaps and bounds in a few short months.
THE LAKE SHOW
I could have written an entire column exclusively covering the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012 – to say they made some news would be putting it lightly. After going out in five games to the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs last spring, the team entered the off-season with several holes to fill (the most notable one at the point guard position). The Lakers eventually agreed on a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns for Steve Nash, and they also acquired Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic in a separate trade. With a starting five featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Nash, Howard, and, part-time Vancouver weather man, Metta World Peace, the expectations for the Lakers were sky high. They struggled out of the gate, losing four of their first five games (and head coach Mike Brown was the scapegoat for the slow start).
The Lakers have also watched the team that they share a home arena with, the Clippers, emerge as the NBA’s best team. And if that doesn’t sting enough, the Clippers have turned things around almost entirely because of Chris Paul (the same Chris Paul that the Lakers had acquired in a trade in 2011 before NBA commissioner David Stern decided the trade wasn’t fair). The Lakers have good players and they will find a way into the playoffs, but they don’t have the speed, defensive ability, or athleticism to match up with the best in the West. Unless Howard returns to 100% soon (his back injury is still affecting his ability at both ends of the court), they are going to continue to struggle to defend their end of the court.
Kobe is still Kobe, and he looks like he could play another five years at an elite level. Late in 2012 he became only the fifth player in NBA history to record 30,000 career points, and he currently is leading the league in scoring, too.
Jeremy Lin’s tour-de-force in New York didn’t last long, but it sure was fun to follow. The energetic point guard reinvigorated Knicks fans with his gritty play and playmaking ability. The Knicks chose to let Lin walk away to the Rockets this past summer, though, and they brought in Raymond Felton to run the point as his replacement. The move has benefitted New York, as it has put the ball back in the hands of Carmelo Anthony, who has embraced the role of leader in New York.
THE DERRICK ROSE INJURY
Born and raised in Chicago, Rose led the Bulls to the NBA’s best regular season record in 2011-12. However, in Game 1 of the playoffs against Philadelphia, he blew out his knee and was done for the rest of the playoffs (and without him, the top seeded Bulls lost the series to the eighth ranked 76ers). Rose still hasn’t made a return yet, although he isn’t far from game action. Rose, when healthy, is one of the best players in the league. He plays with the athleticism and aggressiveness of players like Wade and Westbrook, but he can also change his game into more of a pure playmaker role like a Paul or Nash. The Bulls have not, surprisingly, struggled without Rose, as they lack a second genuine scoring threat on their roster. Rose and the Bulls will be in tough to win against the Heat and Thunder in the near future, but don’t bet on Rose selling out to join another team. Even in today’s world of players changing addresses at a moment’s notice, Rose’s attachment to the city of Chicago is unbreakable.
There were several other notable stories in 2012 – the Nets moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, David Stern fined the San Antonio Spurs heavily after they didn’t play their three best players in a road game against Miami, the Toronto Raptors acquired Kyle Lowry from Houston, and the city of Seattle received the go-ahead to build a new arena in hopes of enticing an NBA team back to the Pacific Northwest. And now that the league has fixed some of the problems that ailed it under the old CBA, things are only going to get better in 2013.