Its almost time once again for hoops to rattle as the NBA comes rolling into town for yet another season. Off-season trades have dominated the headlines for the last few months and it seems the Miami Heat will have their task cut out in defending their title. As always, the biggest threats should come from the Western Conference where the Los Angeles Lakers have undergone a significant facelift, bringing in All Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
The defending Western Conference champs the Oklahoma City Thunder and the team they beat in the Conference final, the San Antonio Spurs, will also look to build another run at a ring. The Denver Nuggets, for the first time since selling Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, look like a team that can make some noise, having signed on the explosive Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s LA Clippers could be a contender for a Conference final spot while it will be interesting to see whether the No.1 draft pick Anthony Davis can ignite the New Orleans Hornets. Also, once Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio return fully fit, the Minnesota Timberwolves should be primed for a drastic improvement from their previous season and could run the Dallas Mavericks, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Utah Jazz close for a playoff spot.
Over on the East, the Heat are the definite standouts but will once again face stiff competition from the veteran Boston Celtics. The C’s have seen Ray Allen move to South Beach only to have GM Danny Ainge fill that void with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee added to the mix.
A lack of height leading to poor rebounding was the source of most of their worries last term and Ainge and coach Doc Rivers have addressed that issue by bringing in 11-year-veteran centre Jason Collins, the experienced Darko Milicic and rookie forwards Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo. Leandro Barbosa is another good addition to the side and alongside Terry, Lee, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo provides sizeable depth to the backcourt.
Having seen both Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green spend the last year on the sidelines, the Celtics resigned the duo to further complement the solid starting pieces of captain Paul Pierce and the ‘Big Ticket’ Kevin Garnett. Brandon Bass will look to continue his form from a solid 2011-12 season while Rondo is definitely the ace in the pack in this veteran outfit.
Elsewhere, the Chicago Bulls will look to bounce back from the setback of the previous year when they had to make do without their star point guard Derrick Rose in the playoffs. But once Rose is fit and raring to go, with Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Rip Hamilton, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson all in to back him up, the Bulls will have one of the strongest overall teams in the League. The frontcourt of Noah, Boozer and Deng will be much more effective once Rose returns and even dead-set shooters like Hamilton, Gibson and Hinrich will profit from playing alongside the All Star.
Meanwhile, the most improved outfit in the League is likely to be the Brooklyn Nets. With point guard Derron Williams having resigned with the outfits, the acquisition of Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks will add another dimension to the side. Williams will have a lot of pressure on the offensive end taken off him by playing alongside a stellar wingman like Johnson while the former Hawk will get a lot of good looks with opponents focusing on shutting down Williams.
The other stand out team in the East is the New York Knicks. With the Heat, Celtics and Bulls, the Knicks should lock up home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs in the East. While it is no secret that Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire have not yet got their partnership in sync, there were some good signs last season on the defensive front with the energy brought by Tyson Chandler.
Linsanity might have packed up and left but with veteran point guard Jason Kidd arriving and Raymond Felton returning, the Knicks should be better off in that department. Also, following a solid rookie season, Iman Shumpert will be out with a point to prove and could, over the season, strike a claim for a regular starting berth.
Andrew Bynum’s arrival has added another notch to the 76ers, who look stronger despite letting go of Iguodala and Elton Brand. The Hawks have broken up their star trio of Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith by letting go of the first, but still have enough options to make a strong regular season run into the playoffs. The Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors should fight it out for the last playoff spot in the East.
The likely scenario come April-May next year could be the Heat facing up with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference final, unless Rose’s return towards the end of the season really picks the Bulls up. The only other team that could prove to be a spoiler is the Knicks but they will require their biggest stars, Anthony and Stoudemire to gel.
In the West, the Thunder, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden should be primed for a return to the Conference final. The Lakers, despite a 0-8 record in the pre-season, will start figuring out their balance over the regular season.
Just like in 2010 when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh came together at the Heat, their mix of Kobe Bryant, Howard, Pau Gazol, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash should propel them to the top two in the West at the expense of the Spurs. However, like James and co found out, they might need a season of experience under their belts and one or two bad bruises before they finally land a ring – maybe 2013-14 could be the year for them.
The likely scenario for the Finals would be a rematch of last year’s shoot out between the Heat and the Thunder. However, if it were left to matters of the heart, then it would be swell to have the old rivalry of the Celtics-Lakers played out one more time.