A lockout hangover? Quite the opposite

Thank LeBron James, first for playing so gosh-darn awful in June, and now for playing so extraordinarily dominant the second season of his hoped-for redemption.

Thank the New York Knicks for so far failing with enough talent and promise to make the misery meaningful. Thank Derrick Rose for keeping the Chicago Bulls good enough to challenge the Heat in the East, thank DeMarcus Cousins for making Sacramento interesting, thank Kyrie Irving and the crop of his fellow rookies for imbuing the bad teams with real promise, thank Lamar Odom for epitomizing just how old and miserable Dallas suddenly seems … thank them all and more.

Hell, thank David Stern, too. Whatever he did wrong from June to November — and oh how we could count the ways — come December the league he runs has done something utterly incredible: It’s gone from the NBA that nearly self-sabotaged all that it was on the brink of, to the NBA that is much, much more interesting than last year — shortened season, lockout and fan angst notwithstanding.

More interesting than last season’s start of The Big Three.

More interesting than the Rise of Rose and the doubters who threw numbers and upturned noses his direction.

More interesting, even, than the steady greatness of Dallas, the bright but dimming star that was the Lakers and the flashy but as-yet unready regime in Oklahoma City that took shape last season.

Somehow, someway, this NBA season is even better than the last.

And fans, incredibly, have taken to the drama and fun as if no lockout had ever tested their nerves and insulted their loyalties.

The ratings for the Christmas Day games that kicked off the 2011-12 season were up for four of the five games last year. The Bulls-Lakers holiday showdown was the third-highest-rated regular-season game ever on ABC. On TNT, the Knicks-Celtics game was the most-watched Christmas cable game of all time.

This season, 25 of the first 32 games were sellouts, a nice jump from last season when 19 of the first 32 sold out.

And these improvements are in comparison with 2010-11, a season that saw its own upswing, thanks in large part to the Miami Heat.

Why? Because the Big Three Redux is — to me and apparently many others — as interesting as their first shot at living up to all that hubris and talent. Plus, the other teams competing to beat them are, on the whole, much more compelling than they were last season.

In Chicago, the Bulls’ 6-1 record, fueled by Rose’s excellence, means he and his team are no flash in the pan. They can threaten the Heat for Eastern supremacy, and drama — the real stuff — is what sparks all great sporting moments. That inevitable confrontation seems to coat every moment for both those proud, talented teams.

The Knicks, at 2-4, couldn’t be more interesting. Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver last year, but his Big Apple opportunity — including a role as point-forward — has so far coincided with Amar’e Stoudemire’s worst offensive output in a long time. Throw in free agent Tyson Chandler, and this team either finally gives New York a winner with a shot or a failure that’s pure missed opportunity. Big-time drama either way.

In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are 5-2, but few outside that locker room know whether Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are bosom teammates or a train wreck waiting to happen. Dallas is a mess, with Odom starring in a reality show that’s much more interesting — and real — than the one that features him and his wife. There’s nothing like endings, failure and age chasing down dreams to make a saga worth watching.

In Los Angeles, the Chris Paul-led Clippers are 3-2, the Phil Jackson-less Lakers are 4-4, and everyone else seems decidedly mediocre. Which means the Clippers and their hype may spend a season battling the Lakers and their history for supremacy — not just for the Staples Center, but for the city’s No. 1 basketball spot as well.

Great, great stuff.

Remember when David Stern had to go? When Billy Hunter was supposedly in over his head? When the players were going to squander their golden moment, and the owners abandon an NBA renaissance? When we had to settle for LeBron proving himself in flag-football games against Kevin Durant?

None of it matters now. There are fans in Portland, Orlando, Atlanta, Indiana, Denver, San Antonio and elsewhere — as well as those teams already mentioned above — who could be humored for dreaming big this year.

The NBA is back in a big way. LeBron is on a massive tear, and the only thing more mesmerizing than his play may be the question of what happens the first moment duress falls upon his shoulders come the playoffs. Either his June debacle molded him and his massive talents in a way nothing has before — or it didn’t. Either way, that underlying question — and the search for an answer — offers a good reason to watch.

Kobe is aging but proud, and Paul, Blake Griffin and the other guys on the Clippers have to be hellbent on stuffing that pride down his throat. The Knicks are a mess, but finally in a way that, win or lose, will be of real interest outside New York City. The Bulls, with Rose, are real contenders. Dwight Howard has a team he initially couldn’t wait to bolt playing very well, and a handful of other teams have storylines — and personnel — as interesting as anything we’ve seen in a long time.

NBA lockout? Who cares. The way things are going, the next labor negotiators might want to take up the possibility of not starting the season until Christmas Day.

Because so far, this shortened season seems more thrilling than any full season could compete with.

Let’s make that the next order of business: a shortened season in which all the drama gets so condensed and focused you can’t help but love every moment of it.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.