TORONTO -- Following what may be regarded as a historic season in the NBA, with major milestones being passed and long standing records being broken along the way, we enter the 2011 NBA Playoffs on the verge of potentially one of the most intriguing post-seasons in quite some time.
It's not the long awaited matchups fans envisioned in the preseason or the battles about to ensue between historic rivals that are most compelling about this spring, but the implications the end result may offer.
Heading into these playoffs, one can't help but get a sense of deja vu.
It was 1991 when a young Chicago Bulls team stormed their way through the regular season for a then franchise-high 61 wins - good enough for first in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls were led by the eventual Most Valuable Player, Michael Jordan, who in the first few seasons of his career showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason but just couldn't manage to overcome the superior teams.
After walking through foes who had kept them from advancing in the past, for the Bulls to be crowned champs they would have to dethrone a five-time winner from the past decade, the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson. Only by knocking off one of the past generations greatest champions would Jordan be able to legitimize himself as the rightful carrier of the torch as the best player in the game. Like a house of cards being blown over by the wind, Chicago swiftly discarded Los Angeles and claimed the title.
The victory would set the tone for a period of basketball many hoop fans will fondly remember as the "Jordan Years," also becoming the NBA's most profitable era, up to that point, along the way.
Fast-forward to 1998.
A two-time defending champion Bulls team struggled through the regular season, by their standard, looking to be on the verge of becoming old. Led by His Airness -- no longer the explosive athlete who transcended the game but a wily veteran who relied on guile -- coupled with a seasoned coach in Phil Jackson, the Bulls were in prime position to claim their third consecutive title - sixth together.
We all know how the story book ending went down, a moment forever frozen in time. When Jordan brilliantly crossed over Bryon Russell and pulled up for the game-winning jumper in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to claim his final ring. The NBA couldn't have been more popular.
What followed, however, would be one of the darkest periods in league history - the lockout.
Now in 2011 we're faced with a possibility of either of those outcomes to occur.
Once again the young Bulls are atop the Eastern Conference, only this time with the best record in the league with 62 wins, their most since MJ left town, and possess possibly this season's MVP in Derrick Rose. Over the past few years, Chicago has endured some heartache in the postseason, most memorably a first round seven-game series for the ages with the Boston Celtics in 2009 that Rose and company would fall just short in.
With the league's most dynamic player and a solid penchant for defense, the Bulls have cemented themselves as contenders for the title, earning the praise of even Jordan himself when he told the United Center fans during the franchises celebration of the 20th anniversary of its first championship, "You guys are in store for a lot of other championships when you look at this team tonight. Don't be surprised if you have six more coming."
Yet, the Bulls still have much to prove and will have to overcome a plethora of foes in the East to establish they are worthy of all the praise and comparison to the Jordan-era. If it does overcome all its conference has to offer, Chicago may be facing the long standing vanguard of the past decade - the Los Angeles Lakers.
There is much at stake for the two-time defending champions. In a season that saw Kobe Bryant move from 12th to sixth on the NBA all-time career scoring list, there remains a single elusive ring to match his boyhood idol in successfully completing a three-peat twice, en route to six titles in total. It would also give Jackson's time in Los Angeles as much success as his time in the Windy City, further distancing himself as the most decorated coach in NBA history.
Though it may appear to be the makings of a sure run at the title, the Lakers showed a certain disinterest at times on the defensive end and two losing streaks of four games or more suggests three long seasons deep into June may have caught up to Show Time.
Both scenarios would give fans and critics a sense of nostalgia, a trip back to the "Jordan Years" - a legendary team cementing their legacy or a young upstart trying to over throw them to create their own.
But here lies the big cloud over the entire season, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring on June 30 there remains a great uncertainty whether or not there will be any basketball at all next season. With both sides still worlds apart on any sort of deal, there may be more emphasis on what happens in the court room than the hard court this summer.
Will this postseason be remembered as the end of an era and the ascension of a new star or will it further legitimize the accomplishments of a dynasty and its star standing amongst the all-time greats?
More importantly, however, could be whether this season is reminisced for the game itself or the ugly battle that followed in the offseason.