Five matchups will kickoff NBA basketball season

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After nearly a half-year lockout the NBA returns for a shortened season on Christmas Day. Five matchups will kick off what will be a compressed 66 game season.

The Christmas Day lineup includes several very attractive pairings, highlighted by a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals between Dallas and Miami.

The Mavericks are expected to receive their Championship rings prior to taking the court.

Also highlighting Sunday’s NBA debut will be Boston visiting the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers playing host to the Chicago Bulls.

Finishing out the slate will be Orlando at Oklahoma City and Los Angeles’ “other” team, the Clippers, traveling upstate to face Golden State.

A long standing saying at Major League ballparks designed to increase sales is “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” and it may never be more applicable than to the new NBA season. Because of the owners’ lockout, player movement among the 30 teams was non-existent from July 1 until Dec. 9.

Several players opted to play in foreign lands, which depleted the rosters of some teams. Free agency consisted of a very brief frenzied period and a situation that still is not complete. Most rosters are still not complete and may not be so until right before the season tips off.

The very abbreviated training camp period also includes just two preseason games per team so there is precious little time for coaches to implement much in the way of sophisticated offenses or defenses.

The most significant handicapping factor to be considered will be scheduling dynamics. There will be many instances of teams playing three straight games back to back to back.

It will be important to observe how coaches handle those situations as to how playing time is allocated to starters and reserves. Some coaches may make an effort to win the first two of the three-game set while others may put more emphasis on Games 1 and 3.

Older teams may be at a disadvantage in such scheduling blocks yet at the same time be in a better position to pace themselves. The quality and sequencing of foes in such scheduling spots will also be a key factor.

Already the 10 days of free agency and roster moves have made headlines and not necessarily positive ones. NBA Commissioner David Stern has been widely criticized for his voiding of a key trade that would have brought outstanding point guard Chris Paul III to the Los Angeles Lakers. Paul ultimately wound up cross town with the Clippers. The fate of Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard remains uncertain.

Forecasting teams to make the playoffs is more hazardous than in seasons past because of the uncertainty surrounding opening day rosters and the effects the schedule will have. In other seasons coaches can plan months ahead for how they want to handle road trips, key injuries, etc. and have tentative plans in place. That is not the case now when coaches and management will have to act ‘on the fly’ as situations develop.

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on teams that should have success despite all the turmoil of the past several months.

EAST

Despite all the early season struggles amid high expectations the “Dream Team” – the Miami Heat – still made it to the NBA Finals in its first season with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. They’ve added versatile veteran Shane Battier whose leadership qualities will combine with his basketball talents to make the Heat just as formidable.

Miami’s main competitor for the Eastern Conference title should be Chicago. The Bulls return most of the team that made great strides last season, earning the conference’s top seed before losing to Miami in the Finals. The Bulls led the NBA with 62 wins last season.

Boston and New York should also be contenders in the East while Orlando will be in the mix for as long as Howard remains with the team. If he is traded, as expected, the Magic should stumble but might still be good enough to make the Playoffs although their prospects for advancing without Howard are not good.

Milwaukee might be a surprise team to make the playoffs while Atlanta should fall back in the standings.

WEST

We could continue to see a shift in the balance of power that started a few seasons ago. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook the additional season of experience could put Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals. Dallas will still be a force but the difficulty of repeating, combined with a retooled roster and the proverbial “target on their backs” make them a poor proposition to successfully defend that title.

The LA Clippers are expected to be on the rise with star Blake Griffin welcoming both Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. It may be a bit premature to expect that the Clippers will overtake the Lakers as the best team in LA, but that gap has narrowed. Still, expect the Lakers to be a force even with an again roster that includes Kobe Bryant still as one of the premier players in the league. The departure of Lamar Odom to Dallas will be felt however.

San Antonio is on the decline but the well coached, well managed Spurs should still make the playoffs. They had the NBA’s second best record last season although age took its toll with a second half slump and first round upset loss to eighth seeded Memphis. Expect Memphis to continue its improvement and again make the playoffs but likely as a fifth or sixth seed this season.

A potential sleeper might be the Minnesota Timberwolves whose collection of young talent will be coached by Rick Adelman, who enjoyed much coaching success previously in the NBA at different stops. The T-Wolves are poised to make the same kind of leap this season in the standings as teams such as Memphis and Oklahoma City did over the past few seasons.

Houston, Portland and especially Denver should be on the decline this season.

In the end, the expectation is for Chicago and Miami to again duke it out in the East with Chicago prevailing this season. In the West look for Oklahoma City to prevail over the Lakers and make it to their first NBA Finals.

The call is for Chicago to defeat the Thunder in six games to bring the NBA Championship back to the Windy City for the first time since the end of the Michael Jordan era.

Here’s a look at three of the games on Christmas Day that will launch the 2011-2012 NBA season.

Boston +1 at New York: The Knicks should get off to a strong start. The Celtics return an aging but effective trio of stars but will be without the services of Jeff Green all season, acquired in a controversial mid season trade with Oklahoma City last season. Still, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce give the C’s great balance.

New York counters with Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and the recently signed Tyson Chandler to give the Knicks their own talented trio. The home court will be worth several extra points in this season opener and the teams are fairly even and the crowd will make a difference. NEW YORK.

Miami -3 at Dallas: The line makes sense as Dallas will have much of a new look while the Heat return the core of last season’s team. Dirk Nowitzki leads Dallas but it will take some time for him to adjust to several key losses and some new additions. Normally the Mavs would be a take as a home dog if this were played other than in the national spotlight.

The Heat are extremely motivated to make an early season statement and if they have the chance to run it up against the Mavs, they will. They catch Dallas at the right time when sloppy offensive execution is at its highest, especially with a Miami team that can play defense. MIAMI.

Chicago +3 at LA Lakers: Calling for the demise of the Lakers may be a bit premature although this team figures to be as negatively affected by the compacted schedule as any team. And not just for the obvious reason of age. But having former Cleveland coach Mike Brown on the sidelines to replace the retired Phil Jackson also suggests a period of transition made more difficult by the lockout.

The Lakers open the season against a much younger and very talented Chicago team, eager to erase the bitter taste from their early exit from last season’s playoffs. The Bulls return most of that roster, led by league MVP Derrick Rose and supported by Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and others including newly signed Rick Hamilton’s leadership will be valuable. Still, the Bulls will be displaying a swagger as well as playing pretty good defense. CHICAGO.

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About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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