1. The NBA lockout goes on and on ... In July, as forecast, NBA owners locked out the players, and for two months the two sides barely negotiated at all. Once talks resumed on a new collective bargaining agreement, they were able to progress toward a deal while also giving the impression that irreconcilable differences were keeping them apart. The problem? The owners had trouble agreeing among themselves on the terms of a new deal, and the same was true of the players -- which in turn gave each side very little room from which to compromise.
In the end, they shook hands on a CBA that saved all but 16 games of the 2011-12 season and enabled a Christmas Day start, albeit with a compacted schedule and truncated training camp that left teams with little time to assemble rosters and prepare for the regular season. Would the players and owners put their adversarial past behind them and proceed as partners? Would the 2012 postseason convince fans to forget all about the mess of the 2011 offseason and preseason? This was yet to be determined.
2. The Mavericks win their first championship. They weren't supposed to win. The defending champion Lakers, the newly collected Heat and the elderly Spurs and Celtics were given a better chance than the Mavs, who had advanced to the second round once since losing in the 2006 Finals. Indeed, Dallas was predicted to be upset in the opening round of 2011 by the Trail Blazers, who recovered from a 23-point deficit in the second half to even their series at 2-2. Thereafter, the Mavs went 14-3 while sweeping the Lakers and surviving Miami, which was on the verge of seizing a 2-0 lead in the Finals before succumbing to a comeback launched by Dirk Nowitzki. It was an outcome celebrated by most of the country, as the stars who had celebrated prematurely 11 months earlier were beaten by the team that wasn't supposed to have a chance.
3. Miami's Big Three reaches the Finals.LeBron James invited casual fans to turn against him, and the booing followed him and his new teammates everywhere they went. You may not have liked them, but you had to respect Miami's insistence on improving throughout the season. James looked like the league's best player in postseason victories against Boston and Chicago, as he joined with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a surprisingly effective rotation that defended at an elite level. And then it all went bad again: They lost four of their last five and blew second-half leads as James turned passive and he and Wade made fun of Nowitzki's having the flu. The only question left is this: Will that season define Miami, or will the Heat use it to launch a run of championships?
4. Chris Paul is traded ... no, he isn't ... yes, he is. The MVP-caliber point guard informed the Hornets he would not sign a contract beyond 2012, when he planned to opt out as a free agent. So the Hornets conceived a three-team trade in December that sent Paul to the Lakers (launching a younger Lakers era while reducing their luxury-tax payments) and Pau Gasol to the Rockets while leaving New Orleans with Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic. The deal appeared to be done until it was vetoed by commissioner David Stern in his role as de facto owner of the Hornets, who had been purchased by the NBA when owner George Shinn couldn't find a buyer. That trade would have raised the Hornets' contract obligations, but Stern needed to lower them to sell the team to a local owner who would keep the Hornets in New Orleans.
Six days later, a new deal sent Paul to the Clippers in exchange for emerging star Eric Gordon, center Chris Kaman, second-year forward Al-Farouq Aminu and the unprotected 2012 first-round pick of the Timberwolves. Stern appeared willing to accept the criticism for his veto to create a more promising future for the Hornets, but the controversy inflamed all of the divisions of the lockout.
5. Carmelo Anthony traded to the Knicks; Deron Williams traded to the Nets. The Knicks and Nets were competing for the right to trade for Anthony, who preferred New York to New Jersey but didn't dare wait for free agency in 2011 -- he wanted to sign a new contract before the lockout could change the financial rules. In February, he was dealt to the Knicks, appearing to leave the Nets empty -- until they suddenly agreed to a deal for Williams. The Knicks continued to build a potential contender by adding free-agent center Tyson Chandler to their front line alongside Amar'e Stoudemire, while the Nets -- in preparation for their 2012 move to Brooklyn -- sought a trade for Dwight Howard. But those hopes were threatened when it was announced in late December that Nets center Brook Lopez would undergo surgery for a stress fracture in his right foot, leaving him little time to rehab and be traded to Orlando before the deadline of March 15, 2012.
6. Derrick Rose becomes youngest MVP. The last Bull to be league MVP was Michael Jordan, who was idolized by Rose as he grew up in Chicago. In 2011, the Bulls were recycled as contenders by the explosive Rose, who at age 22 -- in his third NBA season -- led them to the No. 1 seed in the East while improving his jump shot to average 25 points in conjunction with a career-best 7.7 assists. Rose joined new coach Tom Thibodeau to lift the Bulls back into contention, with the promise of many more winning years to come.
7. Phil Jackson departs. The best coach of the modern era returned to the Lakers in hopes of scoring a fourth three-peat and securing a sixth championship for Kobe Bryant. But the accumulated fatigue of three straight NBA Finals and the absence of explosive athleticism prevented the Lakers from fulfilling Jackson's vision. After they were swept in the second round by the champion-to-be Mavs, the 65-year-old Jackson said goodbye to the Lakers with a record 11 NBA championships as a coach in hand -- but he wouldn't announce his retirement, holding open the possibility of a return with another franchise.
8. The Grizzlies break through. Memphis had never won a playoff game before entering its series against the top-seeded Spurs. Though injuries to Manu Ginobili weakened San Antonio, the Grizzlies' 4-2 series win was shocking nonetheless, especially since they, too, were shorthanded without star small forward Rudy Gay, who had been sidelined since February by a shoulder injury. Their front line of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur combined with the backcourt leadership of point guard Mike Conley to challenge Oklahoma City in the second round before the Thunder prevailed in seven games. The returns of Gay from injury and Gasol as a free agent suggested more playoff success to come for Memphis.
9. Shaq and Yao retire. The Big Man era that had defined the NBA since the George Mikan 1940s appeared to come to an end with the departures of 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, who was the greatest center of his time, and Yao Ming, who might have challenged O'Neal if not for the recurring injuries that forced his retirement at 30. Center had been the strongest NBA position -- with the exception of Michael Jordan's Bulls, most championship teams possessed a dominant big man -- but in the absence of Shaq and Yao, the only center who appeared capable of winning MVP was Dwight Howard.
10. Dwight Howard's uncertain future. Like Shaq, who left Orlando as a free agent in 1996, Howard appeared to want to leave the Magic. Persistent reports were leaked of his interest in moving to the Nets, the Lakers or the Mavericks, leaving the Magic in limbo: wanting to hold on to Howard for as long as possible, and not wanting him to leave as a free agent without compensation in 2012. As they approached the end of the year, the Magic were faced with a variety of unhappy options.