The Heat reload in search of a repeat » How quickly doubts about LeBron James' ability to close faded once he and Miami steamrolled Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals. Now the rest of the league is lurking in fear of James, who no longer lacks in confidence and at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds continues to redefine how he plays to fit whatever the Heat need. Dwyane Wade is happily second fiddle, Chris Bosh is still in his prime, and the addition of Ray Allen, in a high-profile defection from Boston, is the latest talented mercenary to hop a ride on James' coattails.
The Lakers decide it's this year or bust, again » Kobe Bryant may have to share top billing in the latest big budget Hollywood epic with co-stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, but the biggest question is how long it'll run in theaters. The talent and basketball smarts in the Lakers' starting five, which also includes Paul Gasol and Metta World Peace, is mind blowing. Led by aging former Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, the bench depth is uncertain. Assuming Howard feeds off Nash's assists and Bryant's ruthlessness, the Lakers will challenge the Thunder for supremacy in the West.
Will a full 82-game slate accelerate history or stave off Father Time » Last year's lockout-shortened season had its benefits for San Antonio and Boston, which have both kept their cores intact for one more age-defying run. Jeff Green's return is heroic for the Celtics, but what's left in the legs of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili come April is all that matters. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder should have no such problem and plenty of motivation after their NBA Finals loss and an offseason of being overlooked.
Being the best team in New York just got harder, and there's no guarantee it'll be enough »
The relocated Brooklyn Nets have NBA title ambitions, but to get there will require career seasons from the backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in a league where frontcourt play wins in the postseason. The Knicks might actually be better at point guard with Raymond Felton instead of Jeremy Lin. But unless they find a balance between the contributions of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, Madison Square Garden will only be the Mecca of old-guy basketball jokes.
- Craig Stouffer
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant will win the scoring title again, and Steve Nash will have a career year dropping dimes with the Lakers. But with a season triple double in his sights, this is LeBron James' to lose.
Rookie of the year
Anthony Davis' unique skills made him a must-watch at Kentucky. He'll be the same in New Orleans, even though he may not score as much as his rookie teammate Austin Rivers. Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal and Portland point man Damian Lillard will finish second and third.
Coach of the year
After letting the Indiana Pacers slip into complacency after they were on the cusp of upsetting Miami in the playoffs, Vogel has something to prove this season, and the Pacers could finish as high as second in the East.
With Derrick Rose injured, Boston aging, and Indiana still growing up, the Heat remain the class of the East and will return to the finals with a 4-3 triumph over the Pacers in the conference finals.
Los Angeles Lakers
Even the laser-focused Thunder can't keep up with the Lakers, who stay healthy and roll to the West's top seed. The Clippers surge in the playoffs, setting up a Staples Center battle for the conference title, won by the Lakers in six games.
Lakers over Heat, 4-3
- Craig Stouffer
With the acquisition of center Andrew Bynum, the 76ers are a serious title contender. The 7-footer is coming off his best season of his career -- averaging 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game. He could give the undersized Miami Heat some serious problems in a playoff series. But as much weight will be put on the growth of point guard Jrue Holiday and small forward Evan Turner. Former Wizards guard Nick Young will also have to fill the bench scoring void left by Louis Williams, who is now with the Hawks.
Kyrie Irving ran away with the rookie of the year award last year, averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists a game. But will he be able to avoid a sophomore slump, and who can help lighten his scoring load? Center Anderson Varejao played in only 25 games last year but is back to handle the dirty work. Forward Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft, averaged 8.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game last season. Rookie Dion Waiters, the No. 4 pick, will need to provide perimeter scoring. With three recent top-five picks, Cleveland could be building something strong.
Portland Trail Blazers
A late-season collapse, losing nine of their last 10 games, spoiled any hope of the Blazers making the playoffs last year. But it also led to Portland getting the No. 6 pick in the draft, which it used on Weber State point guard Damian Lillard. Expectations are high for Lillard, and fellow rookie Meyers Leonard should see plenty of time at center. The biggest responsibility, though, falls on LaMarcus Aldridge. The 27-year-old made his first All-Star Game in 2012, and he has emerged as one of the top post scorers in the league. Now he needs to lead this young group to the playoffs.
The Nuggets landed All-Star Andre Iguodala by giving up Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington and a 2014 first-round pick in a four-team trade. The versatile swingman will be a perfect fit in Denver's ball-sharing offense. The Nuggets led the league in scoring (104.1) and assists (24.0). Iguodala led the 76ers in assists (5.5 a game) and steals (1.7 a game). The biggest strength of Denver last year, its depth, will continue to be a strength. The Nuggets are a solid two-deep at every position. Continued growth by Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried could lead to a top-four playoff spot in the West.
- Jeffrey Tomik