The NBA hopes to intriguing early match-ups will help bring fans back as they aim to put the lockout behind them and begin the 2011/12 season.
League and players hope NBA fans accept their holiday gift
The lockout came two-and-a-half weeks after the NBA finals and lasted five months. It left no one certain when players and owners would settle so Dallas could begin defending its title and LeBron James could resume chasing his first.
"We were way, far, far apart from one another," said Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks forward.
Others never wavered, insisting the NBA would not waste the momentum it was riding from James' much-heralded arrival in Miami right through the Mavericks' first championship.
"I knew we would play," said Mark Cuban, the Mavericks owner. "The commissioner wasn't going to let us miss a season."
A 66-game schedule - 16 short of a full season - was saved. It starts with five games Sunday featuring the kind of story lines that made last season memorable, including a finals rematch between Dallas and Miami; Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers trying to regain their form against the Chicago Bulls; and Paul hoping to mesh with young star Blake Griffin to make the Clippers contenders.
And it is those things, David Stern believes, that will win back whatever fans were lost during one of the most turbulent times of his tenure.
"I believe that we can," he said. "I believe the enthusiasm for the Christmas Day start … is exuberant. We recognise that there will be fans that have to be won back … and a keen awareness that we have to say 'I'm sorry'."
Fans were there as never before in 2010/11, when arenas were filled to 90 per cent capacity and the league's three national TV partners all had their most viewers ever.
But owners said they nevertheless lost US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) and locked out the players on July 1 when a new labour deal could not be reached.
A new agreement was finally ratified on December 9, but before anyone could enjoy it, a new wave of negative publicity rolled in. The league, as current owners of the New Orleans Hornets, blocked a trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers, believing it was not a good enough deal for that calibre of player.
Eventually he was dealt to the Clippers, who provided the kind of package the league demanded, but not before heavy criticism of Stern and the league office.
Looking ahead, there are concerns that the compressed schedule, forcing every team to play on three straight days at least once, will challenge the older teams.
That is one reason why expectations are high for younger teams like the Heat and Thunder.
Miami came up two games short of a championship in its first try with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and a title is not only their goal, but the expectation.
"We didn't come together to make the play-offs or to win a playoff series, we came together to win the NBA finals, and that's what it's about," James said.
"We know how long of a journey it was to get there, so we know what it takes to get there. We just try to have a better result if we happen to get back to that point."
UAE TV: Chicago Bulls at LA Lakers, 2am (Sunday) ESPN America
Boston at New York
Miami at Dallas
Chicago at LA Lakers
Orlando at Oklahoma City
LA Clippers at Golden State
New Jersey at Washington
Milwaukee at Charlotte
Houston at Orlando
Toronto at Cleveland
Detroit at Indianapolis
Oklahoma City at Minnesota
Denver at Dallas
Memphis at San Antonio
New Orleans at Phoenix
LA Lakers at Sacramento
Philadelphia at Portland
Chicago at Golden State