Question is, will this season follow suit?
There's little debate that the NBA lockout wreaked havoc with the league's regular rhythms: From a belated Christmas Day opening to the ongoing playoffs, we've witnessed bad, disjointed basketball, a ridiculously compressed schedule (three games in three nights only works for the Harlem Globetrotters) and a rash of injuries to stars such as Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin, and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, some of which have been blamed on the work stoppage. (Sorry, Amare Stoudamire, but breaking glass in the case of a non-emergency can't be pinned on NBA owners' desire to up their BRI income). And all of this has me worried. Worried that the league is on the verge of crowning a bogus champion, akin to the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, winners of what Grantland's Bill Simmons - in his full obsessive-compulsive, list-making ?quien es mas macho? sportswriting glory—calls "the lamest NBA title ever."
Remember: the 1999 playoffs took place after a 50-game regular season that began in February. The No. 8-seeded New York Knicks made the Finals—and are more notable for Larry Johnson's infamous phantom four-point play than for actually being, you know, good. The Spurs triumphed largely because they: (a) had roster continuity; (b) avoided major injuries; (c) didn't have to face the just-retired Michael Jordan. This year's Miami Heat seem primed to repeat San Antonio's performance—and while James and Co. might indeed be the NBA's best team, a worthy successor to past champions, I'm not sure the playoffs will prove it.
Jake, what's your take?
Oh, you need more of an explanation than that? Consider the three teams who have the best chance to win the title.
–Miami Heat: Led by the best player in the game by a good amount, the player who ESPN's Austin Link called "the best player of his generation, regardless of a championship or not" searching for his elusive Holy Grail of a first NBA championship. Besides LeBron, you have a second superstar in Dwyane Wade and a top-10 big man in Chris Bosh. The supporting cast includes veteran Shane Battier, who perhaps more than anyone in the league deserves to win a title.
–Oklahoma City Thunder: OK City has the best offensive player in the league in Kevin Durant, who would have won the MVP this year if it weren't for LeBron. One of the two best sixth men in the NBA in James Harden (we'll get to the other one in a sec). And what's not to love about Russell Westbrook, who seems to be a better version of Tiny Archibald but holds Durant back because of his Nick Van Exel-like need to play one-on-five?
–San Antonio Spurs: Between Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, this is unquestionably the smartest team in the league. Put simply, the Spurs know how to win. Duncan and Pop have won four titles with the same implacable determination. Tony Parker is having arguably the best season of his career (Year 1 AE, perhaps?) and Manu Ginobili has recovered from an early-season injury and is throwing crazy bullet passes like his former self. Oh, and the supporting cast is as good as it's been in years. My favorite bench player is rookie Kawhi Leonard, who was overshadowed by in-conference rival Jimmer Fredette while at UNLV but has been a hard-nosed forward for years.