Real business can begin

CHRISTMAS DAY is the jewel in the crown of the NBA season but this year it will bring with it a bigger gift than ever: basketball’s return from the brink.

For a while during October and much of November, the enforced lockout of players by the 30 team owners had many believing that there wouldn’t be a season.

This particular dispute, the league’s fourth since its inception in 1946, began on July 1 and centred around the division of revenue, a salary cap and the luxury tax which that cap forced upon its bigger teams.

It was, at times, a bitter stand-off which was rendered all the more complicated by two key points: teams were hemorrhaging money (22 out of the 30 clubs claimed to have suffered a loss during the 2010-11 season) and the declining popularity of the league meant the general sporting public was not as fearful about professional basketball as they were about the NFL which this summer overcame a similar work stoppage in time for the new season.

However, the saving grace for the NBA was that the prospect of deep economic pain loomed large for players if not for owners, many of whom secretly favoured saving costs by cancelling the entire season. The players union relented, accepted a 50/50 split of the $4 billion (€3.06bn) annual revenue (down from 57%) paving the way for a sudden resolution that was reached in Manhattan on November 26.

The regular season was saved but six weeks were lost and the fixture list was reduced to 66 games. While many see this as a bit of fat trimming, paving the way for tomorrow’s baptism of fire, an enticing five-game schedule, the players themselves have already expressed fears about a tighter diary with less days to recover between matches in the coming months.

The lockout was an inevitable setback but a badly timed one. Basketball fans had just enjoyed one of the most exciting seasons in a decade, culminating appropriately in June’s stunning and well deserved NBA finals victory for the Dallas Mavericks over the star-studded pantomime villain Miami Heat.

So although the NBA’s reputation took a hit, the short memories of sports fans mean that when the new season tips off at Madison Square Garden at midday, New York time, millions of households will contain the distinctive background noise of almost 12 hours of basketball.

At the Garden, the Knicks will host their arch enemies, the Boston Celtics, the former having bolstered the squad a little, the latter yet to do so.

The action will then move straight to Dallas where the champions will welcome back Miami. Dallas are not expected to regain the title and all eyes will be on the Heat who are expected to go all the way, necessity and talent being two of their driving forces.

Two of the most intriguing teams on the eve of the new season reside in LA. The Lakers, who will host the ever improving Chicago Bulls, have had a traumatic pre-season. When they did a deal with the New Orleans Hornets for top point guard Chris Paul, the league vetoed it, sparking a wave of criticism.

It mattered little that the Lakers benefit more than most from the extreme lopsidedness nature of the NBA, the decision which was prompted by owners of other teams was a PR blow that arrived at an inopportune moment.

Just as the league was trying to restore confidence in its brand after the lockout, fans and media were immediately questioning the motives of those charged with slicing up the multi-billion dollar pie.

It went from bad to worse for the Lakers: Paul signed for their fellow tenants at the Staples Center, the LA Clippers just as one of the Lakers’ key men, Lamar Odom, was shipped off to the Mavericks.

Star man Kobe Bryant enters the season with a wrist injury and a divorce to contend with. None of this will be a source of any comfort for their new coach Mike Brown who has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of one of the most successful coaches of all time, Phil Jackson.

Whatever happens, the stories from here on in will, at least, not revolve around work stoppages and the wages of millionaires.

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