It all cranks up again Tuesday night. The two-time defending champion Heat hosts the Bulls and the return of star guard Derrick Rose. The battle for basketball supremacy of Los Angeles takes place as the Clippers try to overtake the Lakers. And, for local fans, the rebuilding project known as the Orlando Magic begins what is likely a long season with a trip to Indiana to take on a Pacers team that believes it can win it all. The Heat is attempting to become the first franchise since the Celtics from 1984-87 to reach the NBA Finals four consecutive years. Can Miami do it? That's just one of the questions in our Two Cents NBA preview.
Can the Heat three-peat?
Remember when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and promised not one championship but two … three … four … and so on? Well, the number is two and counting. James remains — and it's not even close — the best player on the planet. The key to the Heat, as we saw in last year's playoffs, will be whether or not Dwyane Wade can stay healthy after consecutive seasons of knee issues. The Heat still has Chris Bosh and a strong supporting cast, which now includes a couple of interesting projects in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. Don't pay much attention to the regular season. Come playoff time, if the Heat can keep Wade healthy, Miami will have to make room for another trophy.
"There is a lot of stress that comes with that kind of a run that Miami has been on,'' TNT NBA analyst Steve Kerr said. "If they are able to three-peat, it will be an incredible accomplishment.''
Which teams will give Miami the most trouble in the East?
Let's start with the Bulls, who will finally get back Derrick Rose. The former MVP says he is better than ever after missing all of last season with a knee injury. The Bulls showed real grit knocking off the Nets in last year's playoffs, and they are the type of physical team that gives Miami trouble.
But if you want to talk physical, no team pushes and shoves the Heat more than the Pacers, who extended Miami to seven tough games in last season's East final. A healthy Danny Granger to go along with Roy Hibbert probably makes the Pacers the team best poised to make a run at the Heat in the East.
The Nets have added some famous names, such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko, but there are still some leadership questions regarding guard Deron Williams, who is fighting an ankle problem. This is a team that showed little intestinal fortitude in a Game 7 home loss to the Bulls without Rose in last year's playoffs. A bigger question mark is handing over this veteran-laden team to rookie coach Jason Kidd, who was playing only a few months ago.
What about the Knicks?
Yeesh, that was a short window. The arrow was pointing up on the Knicks a year ago at this time, but now they are more like the fourth- or fifth-best team in the East and not even the best team in their own city. Already star Carmelo Anthony is making noise about testing free agency some day. The championship drought reaches 41 seasons.
Who is the team to beat out West?
The easy answer is the Spurs. Let's not forget, this team came within a couple of possessions of beating the Heat in the NBA Finals last season. The roster is the same, and I would say that Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are too old, but I thought that last year and the year before that, too. Manu Ginobili did look like he aged overnight during last year's Final.
Because of that, attention now turns to the Clippers with new coach Doc Rivers. He has a solid point guard in Chris Paul, but he needs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to take their games to the next level, and they are at the point in their careers where that seems likely.
Don't dismiss the Thunder. No team in the West has two better players than Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The problem is Westbrook is out until December with a knee injury. That could cost the Thunder a valuable seed in the playoffs.
"I think Oklahoma City is the best team in the West,'' TNT's Reggie Miller said, "but at the end of the regular season they won't have the best record (because of Westbrook being out early). … Come playoff time, if you're a top three or four seed, you have to have the ability to go into someone's arena and win a road game. The Thunder certainly can do that. I have the Thunder coming out of the Western Conference."
Will the Lakers and Celtics be any good?
These are the most storied franchises in the NBA. You have to go back to the 1993-94 season to find the last time both teams were under .500. It might happen again this season.
The Lakers' success depends on how soon Kobe Bryant returns from his Achilles' injury and how effective he is when he returns. Until then, they have to rely on Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. Kobe can will his team into the playoffs, but this team is heading south, not north.
Forget the Celtics. New coach Brad Stevens is in charge of a rebuilding project, and this team is headed for a lottery pick, especially with Rajon Rondo out after knee surgery.
Will Dwight Howard make a difference in Houston?
Sure he will. As much abuse as Howard has taken for the way he left Orlando then fell on his face with the Lakers, he remains an elite player. With a chip on his shoulder, and out of the shadow (and earshot) of Kobe Bryant, Howard can be the man with the Rockets. Teaming with James Harden, Howard has a chance to turn the Rockets into a solid contender in the West.
How about the Magic?
Uh, the arena sure is nice. Other than that, there isn't much to see over in Orlando as the rebuilding project continues. The Magic won 20 games last season, and reaching 20 this year might be a stretch. Eventually, the Magic is going to part ways with veterans Glen Davis and Jameer Nelson. Its plan likely involves yet another lottery pick or two to go alongside rookie Victor Oladipo.
What's new in the NBA this season?
The best idea in 30 years has come along. The NBA owners voted to change the NBA Finals format from 2-3-2 to 2-2-1-1-1. That means teams with the homecourt advantage will host Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 as opposed to Games 1, 2, 6, 7. The 2-3-2 format was put in place 30 years ago with the idea that more media would cover the series with fewer plane trips over seven games. However, the long-standing complaint was that, after Game 5, the team with homecourt advantage would have played fewer home games than its opponent.
Who is new?
There are nine first-time head coaches: Brad Stevens (Celtics), Jason Kidd (Nets), Brian Shaw (Nuggets), Jeff Hornacek (Suns), Brett Brown (76ers), David Joerger (Grizzlies), Mike Budenholzer (Hawks), Steve Clifford (Bobcats) and Michael Malone (Kings).
Kidd and Shaw have the best teams and will make the playoffs. Joerger's Grizzlies and Budenholzer's Hawks should get in, too. The rest have tough jobs ahead of them, particularly Brown, whose 76ers might be the worst team in the NBA. They are barely below Hornacek's Suns and Malone's Kings.
tom jones' two cents
East playoff teams: Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets, Knicks, Hawks, Wizards, Cavaliers.
West playoff teams: Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets, Warriors, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Timberwolves.
MVP: LeBron James, Heat.
Coach of the year: Doc Rivers, Clippers.
Rookie of the year: Trey Burke, Jazz.
NBA Finals: Heat over Clippers in six.