The five best things in the NBA in 2011

Before the lockout descended on the pro basketball universe and crashed the party, the NBA was on its way to one of its biggest and best years ever.

But even though fans have been forced out of arenas until who knows when, the powers that be can't take away their memories.

Before we survey the not-so-great moments on Tuesday, the members of our panel make their picks for the five absolute best things -- moments, players, games … whatever is in some shape or form involved with the league logo -- about the NBA in the 2011 calendar year:

1. What was the fifth-best thing to happen in the NBA in 2011?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The return of the Bulls and Knicks to relevance. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire won't turn the Knicks into legitimate contenders without some more help, but that buzz -- one that's unique to MSG -- is back. In Chicago, the combo of Tom Thibodeau's defensive witchcraft and Derrick Rose's acrobatics will keep the Bulls in contention until further notice.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: If there was any doubt who the best point guard in the NBA was last season, CP3's six games against the Lakers made the answer clear. Paul took the crown and locked it in a safe. Possession after possession, with a single high screen set for him, Paul dismantled the Lakers' defense. Now imagine if he had competent teammates …

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Carmelo Anthony trade saga. It captured fans of multiple teams, all dreaming about a star playing for them. Melo landing in New York, a huge market with a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2004, was the perfect ending for the NBA. As a bonus, the trade ignited a frenzied deadline week for the NBA and its trade-hungry followers.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: The dunk contest. Say what you want about the ending, but the dunks themselves were amazing highlights. JaVale McGee's multi-hoop and multi-basketball tricks, Serge Ibaka's dunk from behind the free throw line, DeMar DeRozan's off-the-stanchion-between-the-legs, Blake Griffin's contortions in midair … the creativity was second-to-none.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: The NBA blogosphere. There isn't a single sports league that is covered like the NBA. With the league's online content, it's created a brilliant community for discussing the game. From Basketball Jones to SI.com to Ball Don't Lie to SB Nation to Eye on Basketball to TrueHoop Network and all of the great team blogs, there isn't a more fun, creative way to look at a professional sport.

2. What was the fourth-best thing to happen in the NBA in 2011?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Suns president Rick Welts came out as gay in the May 15 issue of the New York Times. Welts, now the president and COO of the Warriors, became the first self-identified gay male executive in a major North American sports league. The sports world trails the rest of America by decades, but Welts helped the NBA play a little catch-up.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Blake Griffin being Blake Griffin for 82 games. In a league full of incredible athletes, Griffin is on the highest tier. Night after night, his majestic twirls and visceral dunks could only be captured on Twitter with caps lock and unintelligible keyboard bashing. He's one of the best things to happen in 2011 and will be in 2012, and 2013 …

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Dirk Nowitzki leading the Mavericks to a championship. Dirk, the first European player to lead a team to an NBA title, will boost the continent's emerging interest in basketball and put the NBA's globalization reach into overdrive. Domestically, Nowitzki was a gracious champion who played a great foil to LeBron James.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Ray Allen cementing his status as the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history by breaking Reggie Miller's record of 2,560 3-pointers on Feb. 10, 2011. Ray's 36 years old, but definitely has a few years left in those legs. If he plays until he's 40, we may see the first 3,000 3-point man.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Blake Griffin. For some reason, it seemed like we were taking the athleticism of the NBA for granted on a nightly basis. After Blake checked Timofey Mozgov for lice while dunking on him, it seemed to wake us back up. Not only did he have highlight reels, but Griffin turned the Clippers into a relative force in January. It takes something special to do that.

3. What was the third-best thing to happen in the NBA in 2011?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The NBA drew 24 million viewers to Game 6 of the Finals between the Mavs and the Heat. A big ratings winner, the series continued a hot streak that's been sustained over the past four Junes, proving that the NBA matters on the national landscape. The excitement, much of it fueled by the Heat, gives the league serious momentum headed into -- [system error]

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Dwyane Wade's full-court alley-oop to LeBron James in a game against the Indiana Pacers was on another level of amazing. More impressive than the impossibility of the play was how simple it looked in the hands of two greats. It was the amalgam of everything we had hoped/feared this Miami Heat squad could become, and may yet be.

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Blake Griffin breaking out. Griffin, with his incredible dunks, as has been said many times, is the perfect star for this replay era. So many people have multiple screens -- computer, TV and phone -- to watch him. And it doesn't hurt that he plays in such a large market.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: The trade deadline. Between Feb. 22 and the 3 p.m. trade deadline on Feb. 24, 50 -- yes, 50 -- players changed uniforms. That's one-ninth of the NBA. Those players ranged from complete irrelevance (Eddy Curry) to superstar (Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams). And it was a whirlwind.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Twitter. Athletes have been tweeting for a couple of years now, but no league seems to universally understand the connection it can have with its fans over this network more than the NBA. It's helped humanize almost every player who participates. It gives the fans access to their idols. Whether or not you agree with them, they've also helped add interesting insight into the lockout.

4. What was the second-best thing to happen in the NBA in 2011?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Blake Griffin came into your living room -- through the skylight. Griffin jumped over automobiles and very large opposing centers en route to more dunks than anyone not named Dwight Howard (not including his exploits on All-Star Saturday). In the process, he electrified a Clippers fan base desperate for a hero.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Game 4 of the Memphis/Oklahoma City second-round series was arguably the best game of the year. It had everything: explosive scoring, stifling defense, emotion, pride. A true showcase of two rising elites. Amid exhaustion, both teams took the time (three overtimes) to spell out the meaning of "heart, grit and grind."

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Miami Heat reaching the Finals. THE story of the NBA season was: Will LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh win a title this year? Most fans rooted against them, but nearly every fan cared. By reaching the final round, the Heat allowed the storyline to garner attention as long as possible.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Blake Griffin's staredown, and the many more to come.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: The Miami Heat coming close to winning the title. While I didn't have any problem with the Heat coming together as they did or how they did, there was a continuity that was constantly missing with them on offense. Defensively, they were a fun unit that created havoc. But they needed to learn to trust each other offensively and I believe losing in the Finals taught this.

5. What was the best thing to happen in the NBA in 2011?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Dirk Werner Nowitzki won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks. Nowitzki's body of work would've had him on an express bus to Springfield. But the ring means that, years from now when a gray-maned Dirk returns to Dallas for some award or other prior to a Mavs game, he'll return as a champion.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Without question, the Dallas Mavericks winning the NBA championship was the best thing to happen in the NBA. It served as the capstone to Dirk's incredible career thus far, validated illustrious careers steeped in the old guard (Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic) and validated the Mavericks' exemplary display of teamwork and selflessness. What a year.

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Miami Heat losing the Finals. Guess what will be THE story of the next NBA season. Will LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh win a title? By losing, those three can play villain again and drive interest in the Heat and, therefore, the NBA.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: The entire playoffs. Memphis taking down San Antonio. Boston's late-game play calls against New York. Game 4, Thunder-Grizzlies. LeBron James silencing his critics for three consecutive rounds, before giving them all the ammo they needed in the fourth. Dallas' comeback in Game 2 of the Finals. And of course, Dirk Nowitzki finally hoisting that elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Dallas Mavericks winning the championship. People were starting to forget that Dirk was a really incredible player. They were starting to forget that team play on both sides of the ball is what this sport is all about. The Dallas Mavericks helped remind us that basketball is still a team sport above all, and that when it's played correctly, it's a beautiful game.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and TrueHoop. Danny Chau, Dan Feldman, Devin Kharpertian and Zach Harper contribute to the TrueHoop Network.

Follow ESPN's NBA coverage on Twitter | On Facebook