Ending lockout by Christmas was critical

At the root of the myriad pieces of good news stemming from NBA owners and players reaching tentative agreement to start the season on Christmas Day is this simple fact: Those entangled in the long lockout realized the NBA is not, in fact, the NFL.

Thus, instead of the universal "Hallelujah!" that greeted football’s return after its own lockout this summer was Saturday’s mixture of relief, and the sense it’s about darn time.

Thus, an NBA season that had more to sell this season than in any other in more than a decade will in fact go forward.

Thus, on Christmas Day, what I honestly believe is the most exciting sports league in the country will showcase itself with a tip-off that includes the Miami Heat at Dallas, where LeBron & Co. will get a good look at what their ring ceremony might have looked like; the Chicago Bulls facing the Lakers in a game where we’ll get a good look at a league-wide storyline in which the future of the NBA competes against its soon-to-be past; and the new-look and actually relevant New York Knicks, where everyone gets to see whether the Carmelo Anthony/Amar’e Stoudemire-led Knicks are now on the same level as the Boston Celtics.

No, the NBA is not the NFL. But now that it’s coming back, it’s got a fantastic chance to inch closer, and certainly can compete aggressively with Major League Baseball and NCAA football for No. 2 in America’s sporting landscape.

Finally, against all the greed, hardheadedness and self-inflicted damage the owners and players flirted with, the NBA has a chance to be more exciting than it’s been in a long time. This year threatens to surpass even last in drama, narratives and great basketball.

“We’re really excited,” Peter Holt, the San Antonio Spurs’ owner and chairman of the league’s labor-relations committee, told reporters in New York. “We’re excited for the fans. We’re excited to start playing basketball, for players, for everybody involved.”

Still, all of this goodwill and happy thoughts were a razor’s edge from slipping into that past in which the NBA was simply a niche sport. Launching this shortened 66-game season on Christmas Day was critical to keeping things headed in the right direction.

Even the NFL seemed aware of what the NBA had in that holiday lineup — of the fact that those marquee matchups, while not putting the NBA on the same level as the NFL, forecast the fact that the Big Three, Derek Rose, Kobe, Dirk, ‘Melo and the others hold a particular appeal.

There is power, now, in the storylines and stars brimming within the NBA — even enough power to put the NFL juggernaut on a temporary hold and shift almost all its games to a Saturday.

What other reason would America’s dominant sport abandon all but one Christmas Day game despite the fact the holiday falls on a Sunday? The NBA’s Christmas Day games have traction, particularly now. They disprove the notion the NBA is only relevant or interesting during its postseason.

Surely NBA Commissioner David Stern knew this; surely it played a small but important role in getting him to step up and apply the proper pressure on his end to get a deal done in time.

Starting on Christmas Day is so important the NBA will shorten its preseason camps considerably in order to get going that day. Its free agency will make the NFL’s own shortened version this summer seem drawn out, and it’s likely to start on the same day as camp itself.

What the NBA risked in this lockout — the goodwill, the momentum, the interest of fans not accustomed to focusing on the NBA before May — can be preserved by getting under way Dec. 25.

That’s what great games, the start of its national television schedule and a legitimate chance to keep a hold of much of America’s imagination by having the day mostly to yourself means.

In terms anyone outside of Miami or an analytics convention can grasp: The NBA came close to pulling a LeBron, but instead got an actual clue at the last minute.

Many of the pertinent details of the deal will have an impact on trades, free-agent signings, competitive balance and the makeup and strategy of teams going forward.

There’s time to contemplate whether the Heat are, as Vegas predicts, the most likely team to win it all, whether Rose lives up to his somewhat controversial MVP award, whether Kobe still has it, whether Dallas and Boston and San Antonio are too old, whether Oklahoma City is still too young, and on and on the good stuff goes.

But for now it’s enough to know that the NBA, a league bursting with possibility, figured out it’s not the NFL — that is has no universal hold on the sports scene, that it’s not the big dog, that, like any up-and-coming talent, being smart about the future is as important as having one.

The only thing that could have held the NBA back was having the arrogance to do it to itself.

Now that that’s out of the way, its future is very bright indeed.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter, email him or like him on Facebook.