The NBA season gets underway Tuesday with a full 82-game schedule to be played after last season was shortened to 66 due to the owners’ lockout that delayed the start until Christmas Day.
Teams will not have to endure the scheduling difficulties created by that compacted plan and the overall quality of play during the regular season should be better.
Miami will seek to defend its championship with a roster that has been improved during the off-season. Most notably, ex-Celtics star Ray Allen joins the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to make the Heat once again the team to beat, at least in the East.
The Lakers look for a return to the top of the Western Conference with the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Howard replaces the enigmatic Andrew Bynum and, when healthy, is the best big man in the league.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio are still forces in the West with both Denver, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers all poised to rise in the standings.
Houston will also be a team to watch especially after the weekend trade with Oklahoma City that made James Harden a Rocket. Jeremy Lin came over from the Knicks and will have the chance to prove he is a legitimate NBA player away from the bright lights of Manhattan.
Boston will still be a formidable team in the Eastern Conference and if Chicago can overcome the loss of star Derrick Rose for most of the regular season the Bulls will be a factor in the playoffs. Poised to make a run up the standings in the East are the relocated Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia.
The loss of Howard will have Orlando struggling this season and they were already a team on the decline. Age will be a concern for the Celtics. The Nets could be poised to be the main challenger to Miami, especially with an owner committed to spending money for acquiring the talent to win a title.
Expectations are high in New York but the over-hyped Knicks will start the season without Amare Staudemire. It remains to be seen if Carmelo Anthony will be more of a team player this season. And, of course, the departure of Lin to Houston will create less of a buzz in the stands.
It’s easy to expect Miami to make it to a third straight NBA Finals and, barring key injuries, the Heat should be favored to win a second straight title. Their most likely opponents will be either the Lakers or Thunder.
The NBA has been arguably the most “true to form” of the major sports when it comes to teams making the playoffs and winning a championship. The long 82-game regular schedule usually has the best teams making the postseason.
Unlike baseball, which has a schedule almost twice as lengthy, NBA teams play the same roster game after game and not subject to the influence of changing key players as is the case with baseball’s starting pitchers.
The prediction here is for Miami to defeat Brooklyn to win the Eastern Conference title and for the Lakers to defeat Oklahoma City and win the West.
In the NBA Finals the prediction is for Miami to defeat the Lakers in 6 games.
The real changes may come next season as more teams in both conferences will have matured enough to pose challenges to the existing elite.
Here’s a look at three games to be played over the weekend.
Clippers at Lakers (Fri): The first “Battle for Los Angeles” takes place with expectations high for both teams. The Clippers made great strides last season and should show improvement again. The Lakers have some new key players on the roster and it may take more than just the preseason for the newcomers to mesh.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant is not 100 percent as the season starts and the Clippers may put greater energy into what is still an early season contest. CLIPPERS.
Blazers at Rockets (Sat): Both teams have designs on making the playoffs after each missed out in the shortened season. Houston has made some major changes in its roster with the late acquisition of James Harden a significant upgrade. Both teams played on the road Friday night with the Blazers likely having a more challenging game at Oklahoma City than did Houston in Atlanta.
The Rockets were a solid 22-11 at home last season whereas Portland was just 8-25 on the road, second worst record in the West. Houston figures to be a modest favorite as they open the home season and then will be off until Wednesday. ROCKETS.
Hawks at Thunder (Sun): Oklahoma City is the defending Western champions and figure to contend for the top seed this season with their outstanding nucleus of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading a deep roster. Atlanta is not expected to be a contender in the East. They need to replace the scoring of Joe Johnson, now with the Nets. The Thunder will be solid favorites in this game. Their starting lineup and their bench each rate significant edges over the Hawks and should be able to extend late. THUNDER.