It's hard to pinpoint exactly when LeBron James made the transformation from pariah to prince in the public's imagination. It may have been the childlike joy he exuded on the sidelines when it became clear that he was about to finally win a championship. It's possible that it was his sublime performance at the Olympics where he was clearly the best player and also at peace with his role for the gold medalists.
If that wasn't enough, LeBron confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that he is not only the best player in the world, he's also one for the ages. He'll win his fourth MVP, which will put him in company with men like Russell, Wilt, Kareem and Jordan. Yes, he needs the championships, but first thing's first. The regular season belonged to LeBron.
The numbers have been staggering, but the moments have been even better. There was the shooting streak -- six-straight games scoring 30+ points and making over 60 percent of his shots that ended with a 39-12-7 game against the Thunder. There was the comeback in Cleveland that came two nights after he carried the Heat past an inspired Celtics team and the whole 28-game winning streak that came with it.
LeBron James was so good this season that he muted an MVP debate with Kevin Durant despite KD's 51-41-91 season. Two years ago, Durant stood poised as the media-appointed small-market savior who would rescue us from LeBron's reign of terror. Now that contrived plotline is rarely mentioned.
That's how good LeBron has been. He has completely changed the narrative. It would be impossible to fully silence his critics, but he's pushed their white-noise arguments into the background where they belong. Years from now, when we truly can place LeBron in a historical context, 2012-13 will be remembered as a pivotal moment, perhaps even more important than The Decision.
Here are the other storylines that defined the season:
Our nightly indulgence*
(Note: This was written Friday afternoon, before Kobe Bryant's injury)
Has there been a more entertaining trainwreck than the Lakers? Night after night we watched their strange journey from superteam to eighth seed as the Lakers improbably became a League Pass cult favorite.
The first coach was fired barely a week into the season, while the second feuded, tinkered and flailed his way through a season with more do-overs than a backyard game of wiffle ball. And none of them was named Phil Jackson.
We witnessed Dwight Howard's fall, Pau Gasol as a stretch four, Metta World Peace as a stabilizing presence and Steve Nash's mortality. In the middle of it all has been Kobe Bryant, stubborn as a motherf--er refusing to yield ground or play much defense. Bubbling below the surface is a real-life family drama that will define the Lakers' future.
Their plot twists and backstage drama became our television obsession. At first, we reveled in it. Then came the backlash. Now it's become one more late-night guilty pleasure. All that's left is the cliffhanger.
* Well, now we know how it ends, with Kobe shuffling off the court after rupturing his Achilles, but not before making two free throws to help the Lakers win a pivotal game. The Lakers may make the playoffs after all, but the thrill is gone without their leading man.
No one in their right mind would ever bet against Bryant coming back from a devastating injury, but even he must have his limits. Kobe will almost certainly be back in some form or another, but the Lakers will need to enter a new phase. If Howard can regain his mobility and athleticism they will remain one of the league's best. If not, this becomes an incredibly expensive flop. The franchise is at a crossroads befitting the best drama on television.
The Knicks' rise and the Celtics' fall
With their roster full of old men and odd-fitting role players, the Knicks improbably shook off years of irrelevance to become one of the most likable teams in the league. They did all this despite the messy exits of Mike D'Antoni and Jeremy Lin and the health-related absence of one-time savior Amar'e Stoudemire.
Under Mike Woodson's tutelage, Carmelo Anthony has become the superstar so many people long assumed he already was, while J.R. Smith has become something much greater than the sideshow attraction he was earlier in his career. Around those two talents, they play as many as three point guards at a time -- including a 35-year-old rookie -- while jacking threes like a scrappy college team. All that and 139 minutes of Rasheed Wallace.
The Knicks' rise from dysfunctional disaster to second-best team in the East has coincided with the Celtics' steep fall from atop the pecking order. It's hard to remember now, but in October the optimism surrounding the Celtics in Boston was only a notch below Kevin Garnett's arrival in 2007.
That gave way to an uneven start, and then presumptive heir Rajon Rondo tore his ACL after an unsatisfying half-season at the controls. They teased us with a strong stretch in the post-Rondo world, but that era of good feeling has given way to a .500 team going through the motions.
The Celtics and Knicks are likely to play each other in the first round of the playoffs and both franchises' collective angst will be on display in what should be the most compelling series in the East. A Knicks victory would confirm the changing of the guard, while a Celtics win would push back their expiration date one more time.
The Nuggets: Ambassadors of awesome
George Karl's team exists on two planes. First, as the Platonic ideal of a team with multitudes making up for the absence of a true superstar. Second, as GIFable chaos conductors. All the while, Karl sits on the sidelines with a wry smile on his bemused face.
Who else but Karl would revel in such an odd collection of players? From Old Man Andre to quicksilver Ty Lawson at the point and the unlikely big-man platoon of Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee, the Nuggets are the best thing that happened to the NBA this season.
By eschewing the traditional route of acquiring superstars, GM Masai Ujiri acquired as many good players as he could fit onto one roster, building a team essentially from scratch in just two years. Just look at some of the names Ujiri has brought to Denver since trading Melo in 2011:
The only player still on the roster from when Ujiri took over is Lawson. It speaks to the overall vision that not one Nugget player was seriously considered for the All-Star team despite a strong record at the break. In short order, Ujiri has turned good players into more good players and assembled the quirkiest team in the league playing a style that directly fits his coach and Denver's unique homecourt advantage.
This is what roster construction is supposed to be all about. Instead of waiting for the next superstar to fall from the sky, go out and assemble the best team possible for your coach and his system. That they happen to be wildly entertaining is only a bonus.
Sam Presti's big move
We can't properly judge yet OKC's decision to trade James Harden to Houston. It will take a few years to see if Jeremy Lamb and all those draft picks turn into cogs in the machine that allow Sam Presti to continue his long-range plan to build around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
In the here and now, trading Harden while the Thunder are championship contenders has immense ramifications. Short of winning a title this year, trading Harden a year before he absolutely had to make a decision will always be second-guessed.
What we do know is that the blockbuster set the framework for trades made under the new collective bargaining agreement. The Grizzlies dealt Rudy Gay -- a trade that looks better by the day -- rather than get stuck in luxury tax hell, and across the league teams hoarded draft picks and cap flexibility. This is the world we live in now. Maybe Sam Presti just saw it before anyone else did.
Seattle, Sacramento and David Stern's long goodbye
This one should be higher on the list, but until we have resolution the Kings sale is primarily a source of speculation and hand-wringing. There are fundamental issues at play, such as whether owners have the right to sell their team to whomever and wherever they want, or if the league demands a higher degree of accountability.
It's undeniable that Seattle should have an NBA team. Whether or not it's this team is the question.
That the Maloofs screwed with Sacramento is also not up for debate. They took a proud team and wrecked it through a combination of gross financial mismanagement and malignant neglect. If their intent was to antagonize the city until it turned its back on them and let them walk, they failed. Sacramento answered back and now the hard decision awaits.
A bidding war appears to be underway, which throws the whole equation into doubt. Assuming the offers match at the end of the day, the question really becomes one of power. Standing in the background is the most powerful man in the sport, David Stern.
He'll step down in February, leaving the next generation in the hands of deputy commissioner Adam Silver, but this challenge is his to solve. Stern's legacy is ultimately far too complex and complicated to boil down to one moment in time, but this will likely serve as the final chapter.
The Spurs will not go gently into that good night
It has been six years since San Antonio won a championship but the Spurs are still here, outsmarting opponents in the front office and on the court. Their staying power has been remarkable, led by the indomitable Tim Duncan, the coaching genius of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford's capable front office.
We take them for granted because they have been so good and so consistent for so long, but there have been noticeable changes. Duncan turned in his best season in three years and Tony Parker may have been even better. Pop successfully integrated Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard into major roles and the Spurs played defense like the Spurs of old.
They will ultimately be judged on the postseason and once again there are injury risks and match-up concerns. Yet the Spurs continue to stay one step ahead of the curve and for that they should be saluted.
Steph Curry, Superstar
When Curry signed his four-year, $44-million extension, there were legitimate concerns about his health, specifically the stability of his ankles, which caused him to miss 56 games in 2011-12. Those questions will never go away, but after watching him assume a bigger role and shoot a remarkable 45 percent on more than 560 three-point attempts, it's no longer debatable that Curry has become a star. With Curry leading the way, the Warriors are returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years and only the second time since 1994.
Curry is an odd kind of superstar. He's not big, quick or athletic. He's a great shooter, obviously, but he's also a clever passer and capable of creating shots for himself with his unique motion. His signature moment happened in New York when he torched the Knicks for 54 points on 28 shots, including a preposterous 11-for-13 behind the arc. This was brilliant stuff, but it was more than just a great shooter getting hot. Only three of his 18 makes were assisted.
James Harden made a similar push up the pecking order, but that was more a question of opportunity. Curry's rise has been from the ground up and stands as one of the more pleasant developments this season.
The Rockets' push forward
Harden's arrival transformed the Rockets from a nebulous team in search of an identity to a fully-formed idea. What if a basketball team took nothing but threes, free throws and dunks? For years we've known that these three shots are the most efficient in basketball and the Rockets are putting theory into practice, playing at a breakneck pace that recalls the glory days of the '80s.
This is Daryl Morey's team as much as it is Harden's and Kevin McHale's. As such, they are still not fully complete. With cap space and young talent on rookie contracts, there is still one more move to make at least and no one is confusing them for a legitimate contender yet.
Still, Morey's stamp is already all over this team. From stockpiling players and picks that ultimately became a superstar to working the fine print of the cap to acquire Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets are an obsessive blogger's blueprint come to life. It will be fascinating to see if the theories are sustainable and whether it will spawn imitators across the league.
John Wall comes into his own
While it can be argued that other developments had more immediacy, no player changed his fortunes as dramatically this season as John Wall. His first two years in the league were a struggle and his third promised to be even worse thanks to a knee injury that kept him out until mid-January.
It took him two months of fits and starts, but over the last 18 games Wall is averaging 25 points and eight assists while shooting over 48 percent. It's not the numbers that have defined Wall. It's the way he has played, reminding everyone of the ethereal talent he displayed at Kentucky that made him the top pick in the draft.
His timing couldn't be better, as he'll be eligible for an extension in the offseason, which forces an important decision in Washington. Beyond that, John Wall is finally making good on his promise and the league is better for it.
Honorable Mention: The Clippers tease and the Grizzlies grind their way to the edge of the power structure. Please come back, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love. Hello Brooklyn. Bowling with Andrew Bynum. Kyrie Irving's excellent All-Star adventure. Paul George's spontaneous eruptions. Larry Sanders blocking shots. Dirk's beard. Lillard Time. Pelicans. If no one paid any attention to the Suns, did they really exist?