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NBA PREVIEW: SEE LAST YEAR'S

Tampa Bay is preoccupied with the World Series, but other cities around the country without a Series team (in your face, Boston) are turning their attention to the start of the NBA season. The games count starting Tuesday, so today we break down the season. And no matter how hard we try, it ends up looking a lot like last season.

Three changes

There is no team in Seattle: The SuperSonics are history after 40-plus years. Welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is a team that finished 20-62 last season, but Kevin Durant is worth watching. And so is ... um ... well, no one else is.

New coaches: Vinny Del Negro (Bulls), Michael Curry (Pistons), Mike D'Antoni (Knicks), Erik Spoelstra (Heat), Terry Porter (Suns), Rick Carlisle (Mavericks), Larry Brown (Bobcats) and Scott Skiles (Bucks). All have one goal: motivate.

Expanded use of instant replay: Referees can now use replay to see if a shot was worth two or three points. They can also use it to see if a foul was committed behind the arc and warrants three shots or two, and in case a game clock malfunctions at the end of a quarter to determine how much time should be on the clock.

Three teams to beat in the Eastern Conference

Boston Celtics: The NBA champions have the Big Three (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) and players such as PG Rajon Rondo and C Kendrick Perkins, as well as a solid bench. They lost F James Posey, but are good enough to reach the Finals again.

Cleveland Cavaliers: They need more than LeBron James, and they appear to have it. New PG Mo Williams should supply scoring help for James, and C Ben Wallace and C Zydrunas Ilgauskas aren't bad.

Detroit Pistons: These dudes are talented, and perhaps new coach Michael Curry can provide a spark. PG Chauncey Billups, G Rip Hamilton, F Tayshaun Prince, F/C Rasheed Wallace and F Antonio McDyess are a good group to have.

Three teams to beat in the Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant is happy, for now, and a healthy Andrew Bynum at center makes L.A. the team to beat not only in the West, but in the NBA. And Phil Jackson is back for what seems like his 57th year as coach.

New Orleans Hornets: They surprised last season, and they will be competitive this season. PG Chris Paul, C Tyson Chandler, F David West, G Peja Stojakovic and G Morris Peterson are talented, and F James Posey joins from the Celtics.

San Antonio Spurs: They have won four championships, all in odd-numbered years. F/C Tim Duncan and G Tony Parker are solid, and they will get stronger when G Manu Ginobili returns from ankle surgery.

Three teams on the rise

Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers made the playoffs last season with a 40-42 record. This season, with F Elton Brand, Philly could challenge the Celtics in the Atlantic Division. Plus, Philadelphia is the city of champions now, right?

Miami Heat: The worst team in the league last year could, could, slip into the playoffs this season. G Dwyane Wade was awesome for the U.S. Olympic team, and F Shawn Marion isn't bad. A little bench help and the Heat rises.

Los Angeles Clippers: Hear me out. They added G Baron Davis (though they lost F Elton Brand) and they got C Marcus Camby and rookie G Eric Gordon. C Chris Kaman isn't shabby. I'm just saying they might not be the same old Clippers.

Three teams on the decline

Phoenix Suns: They secured a sixth seed in the playoffs last season and haven't gotten any younger. Shaq is slowing, PG Steve Nash has to learn new coach Terry Porter's system, and 36-year-old Grant Hill is a bench player.

Golden State Warriors: They won 48 games last season but will struggle in the tough Western Conference with the loss of PG Baron Davis and an injury to G Monta Ellis.

Denver Nuggets: They won 50 games last year but lost C Marcus Camby to the Clippers. Their defense is suspect, and everything adds up to a sixth straight first-round playoff exit.

Three burning questions (and answers)

Can the Magic repeat last season's playoff run? Yes, because the Eastern Conference isn't exactly loaded. The real question is can the Magic go far in the playoffs? That will depend on its backcourt. The Magic is thin at guard and doesn't have much depth.

Which team will sneak up on the league? The Indiana Pacers. F/C Jermaine O'Neal was traded in the offseason for G T.J. Ford, C Rasho Nesterovic and C Roy Hibbert. The improved Pacers will return to the playoffs.

Will the NBA work in Oklahoma City? The answer probably can't be known until next season. This is the honeymoon year for the Thunder, which is sure to fill the building with an awful team because this is the first major sports franchise in the state. Will people still come when the team remains bad?

Predictions

Rookie of the year: O.J. Mayo (Grizzlies)

MVP: LeBron James (Cavaliers)

Defensive player of the year: Kevin Garnett (Celtics)

First coach to be fired: Mike Woodson (Hawks)

Eastern playoff teams: Celtics, Cavaliers, Pistons, 76ers, Magic, Raptors, Wizards, Pacers

Western playoff teams: Lakers, Spurs, Rockets, Hornets, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Clippers

Finals: Not going out on much of a limb here, but all signs point to a Lakers-Celtics rematch. This time it's the Lakers, who give Phil Jackson another championship ring, and all is right in Kobewood. Lakers in six.

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