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The NBA Returns

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Barring some last-minute foolishness, which is certainly a possibility with the goofs who have been negotiating for the last six months, the NBA is set to return on Christmas Day with a pretty epic triple-header of Knicks/Celtics, Mavericks/Heat and Lakers/Bulls.

The owners, who stand to make upwards of $3 billion more over the course of the new CBA, are huge winners. The players, who were able to keep most of the current luxury tax/soft cap system, were able to get just enough to swallow the deal.

At RealGM, I've got a look at the key basketball story-line for the 2011-2012 NBA season, which may eventually be seen as a transition between eras, in the same way that the Tim Duncan/Shaq era began during the lockout shortened 1999-2000 season:

But with Jordan’s retirement following the 1999 lockout, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal rolled back his revolution. Their teams won eight of the next nine championships, as none of the perimeter players hyped as the next Jordan, from Allen Iverson to Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, could win a title without one of the league’s great big men.

Now that the 2011 lockout has ended, the NBA is entering another transition period. The last four championship teams have had multiple near seven-footers in the front-court, while the league’s three best young teams – the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls – all lack a classic low-post threat.

On one level, the resurrected 2011-12 season is a generational battle, with teams built around players drafted between 1996-2001 trying to hold off teams built around players drafted between 2003-2008. On another, it’s a battle for the future of the game itself, and whether the balance of power will stay in the paint or drift out to the perimeter.

That’s why, before we turn the 2010’s over to Durant, LeBron and Derrick Rose, there’s one more loose end that needs to be resolved: a 6’11 265 three-time Defensive Player of the Year with a steadily improving low-post game stuck playing for a capped-out small-market team without much talent.

Here's where the local teams stand before the beginning of what should be a whirl-wind free-agent process:

1. Dallas: Keeping the current luxury tax system for the 2011-2012 season was a huge win for the defending champions. They've got a lot of free agents, but Tyson Chandler is the only one that matters. Everyone else (Caron Butler, JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson) can be replaced.

Here's the current projected back-court with the players they have under contract:

Jason Kidd / Rodrigue Beaubois
Rudy Fernandez (who they acquired on draft day) / Jason Terry / Dominique Jones
Shawn Marion / Corey Brewer

The harsher penalties for luxury tax teams don't really start for another two seasons, which gives Dallas two more years to carry Brendan Haywood's absurd contract for the 10-15 minutes a night they need from him in the playoffs.

2. Oklahoma City: If James Harden and Serge Ibaka continue to develop, and Kendrick Perkins continues to recover from his ACL injury in the 2010 Finals, the Thunder could win a championship this season.

The big question for them in the post-lockout NBA is whether they will be able to afford long-term contracts for Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. They've been lucky to avoid many of the contract/ego disputes that have capsized many young NBA teams, but the money, and the hype, will only continue to grow in Oklahoma City. They already drafted Reggie Jackson, a good role player out of Boston College, to replace Eric Maynor, who is in line to become a starting point guard somewhere.

3. San Antonio: The Spurs need to figure out how much longer Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are going to play at a reasonably high level. Despite their first-round exit, they are still a championship-caliber team, they just need to find another big men who can defend the low post, protect the rim and space the floor.

But if they stick with a front-court rotation of Matt Bonner, Antonio McDyess, Dejuan Blair and Tiago Splitter around Duncan, they're not winning anything important.

4. Houston: Still stuck on the "mediocrity treadmill" of not being good enough to be a playoff threat or bad enough to get a high draft pick. They've got a bunch of interesting young prospects -- Terrence Williams, Jordan Hill, Hasheem Thabeet, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Donatas Motiejunas, Jonny Flynn, Courtney Lee -- but none who project to be a primary offensive option or an elite two-way front-court player.