'Tis the season, even if we almost didn't have one. The 2011-12 campaign is off to a rocky start amid accusations that NBA commissioner David Stern lied and manipulated the landing spot of one of the league's elite stars.
A hectic and messy free-agency period was wrapped into an abbreviated training camp and preseason. The truncated 66-game regular season will be crammed into 123 days. Expect some ugly basketball for a while.
But it's basketball, nevertheless, and locally the Dallas Mavericks are approaching this season like no other in their 31-year history. They've got a title to defend.
Holding on to the Larry O'Brien Trophy is just one of the storylines as the NBA season finally arrives under the tree ...
1. Can the Mavericks repeat?
All appeared bleak when it became obvious Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea weren't coming back. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson sunk their teeth into the new CBA, Stern blocked the initial Chris Paul trade, and the Mavericks pounced.
Moves that landed Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West followed, strengthening the roster while striking a blow against the Lakers. Though the years are piling up, the fire is still burning for Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to make another run.
The Western Conference as a whole is down, giving the Mavericks the inside track at another trip to the Finals.
2. In-season free agency
If teams learned anything from the summer of 2010, it's don't let your franchise players test the free-agency market. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. So if you're certain they going to go, trade 'em while you've still got 'em.
The Utah Jazz did that last season, dealing Deron Williams for a boatload from the Nets. The New Orleans Hornets followed suit twice with Chris Paul, with the second league-brokered deal to Los Angeles sticking.
Now the Orlando Magic is contemplating as much with Dwight Howard. General manager Otis Smith has said the franchise will do everything in its power to keep Superman, but if Howard is going to fly, the Magic is going to do what's necessary.
Circle March 15 on your calendar. That's the trade deadline for this season, and it figures to be a busy one.
3. Kobe Bryant's franchise
Watching Lamar Odom skedaddle to Dallas might be a boon for Kardashian TV, but don't expect Kobe Bryant to watch. The ring is still the thing for Black Mamba, who's chasing his sixth, this time without Phil Jackson.
Mike Brown got the Showtime gig, and the former LeBron James caretaker has won over Kobe in the early going. Brown is organized and well-prepared, qualities that Bryant appreciates. The 16-year vet said he's learning something new every day in practice.
It remains to be seen what Brown will get to work with this season. Will the roster built around Kobe, Pau Gasol and Andre Bynum remain intact or is another superstar on the way? Dwight Howard, anyone?
4. Best of the rest
This could be the season where youth serves up a changing of the guard. A pair of 23-year-old studs have "title or bust" mentality, and with good reason.
Defending MVP Derrick Rose took the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Kevin Durant has two scoring titles under his belt for a Thunder squad that fell to the Mavericks in the West Finals. Their respective teams are poised for the next step.
Graybeards down in San Antonio and up in Boston aren't giving up on their quests to add another trophy to their cases. The Spurs did have the West's best record last season, while the Celtics field a formidable foursome.
And there's some team down in Miami.
5. Bouncing back
Starting with the LeBron James relocating and ending with the Mavericks celebrating, the NBA enjoyed a run of good times and better ratings last season. And then we endured the threat of a canceled season.
The league's hard-line stance nearly destroyed all that was gained, while the end result looks like a CBA that could have been agreed on months ago. A shortened, compressed season will compromise the on-court product.
David Stern's image took a further hit by disallowing the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers, even though the commish went out of his way a year ago to say the NBA-owned Hornets would be free to act without league intervention. Stern's crew eventually moved CP3 to the Clippers.
So the league starts 2011-12 with some credibility issues. At least it's starting.