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NBA Preview: Upgraded Heat a step above competition

The SportsXchange

Those expecting LeBron James to land in Los Angeles in 2014 appear to have it all wrong.

Actually, he has designs on heading west a year earlier.

James' Heat and L.A.'s Lakers are such obvious choices to duel for the NBA title in June, it's somewhat surprising David Stern hasn't expanded the Finals format to a best-of-29 to maximize revenues and give fans in every city a chance to experience what could be an all-time matchup.

The Heat is better equipped to earn a second ring than its first. The signing of Ray Allen turns a negative (Mike Miller's generally ill-advised shooting) into a positive (Allen is the most productive three-point shooter in NBA history). That means those trying to deny a repeat have an even longer road to navigate.

Equally encouraging to the Heat's quest are the question marks for their chief competitors: Derrick Rose is hurt, Allen and Dwight Howard have moved and the Knicks appear lost. Heck, one of the East's traditional challengers -- Atlanta -- already has hoisted the white flag.

The western route to Miami is a rugged one as well, one that might stall on an L.A. freeway.

The Lakers have recreated The Beauty & The Best that produced three titles earlier this decade, only now with Howard slipping into Shaquille O'Neal's massive shoes. Two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash also has been imported to help blossom the new courtship.

The upgrade was exactly what the Heat's Eastern rivals needed and failed to accomplish. That, rather than anything the Oklahoma Thunder has done, has reshaped the West. Kevin Durant's young and supremely talented crew appeared headed to five, six, seven consecutive trips to the Finals until the Lakers harvested Howard.

Still, the Thunder poses a threat to the Lakers while only a comeback by Rose could make the Heat sweat. The Spurs, Nuggets and even Staples Center cohabitant Clippers can't be discounted, either.

FIVE BURNING QUESTIONS

5. Will a loss to the Pacers on opening night start a successful wire-to-wire race to a lottery victory by the Bobcats?

Charlotte shockingly managed 13 fewer wins than the NBA's second-worst team last season, yet was rewarded with just a Kentucky role player -- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- in the draft. It would be hard to believe the Bobcats are worse than a year ago, which is something you could easily say about the teams that should be this season's rivals for the bottom spot (Orlando and Houston). Yet, Roger Clemens has a better chance of winning 20 games next season than the Bobcats.

4. Can Rick Carlisle survive the first month of the season as the Mavericks' coach?

Mark Cuban was the big loser in the NBA off-season, once again failing to buy himself a big-time talent. It's clear to everybody except the billionaire that 2012-13 will be another throw-away season as the boss plots summertime spending spree. Deron Williams or no Deron Williams, Cuban expects more than the dubious distinction of repeating as the NBA's most disappointing team. With Dirk Nowitzki recovering from knee surgery, that dishonor could be locked up by Dec. 1, with Carlisle paying the undeserved price.

3. Will the aging Celtics fast-forward into a new era by dealing Rajon Rondo at the trade deadline?

Jason Terry for Ray Allen might sound like a fair exchange, but the ex-Maverick is a placeholder until the Celtics are convinced their young core is ready for prime-time balling. And that might be a while. Signing Kevin Garnett to a three-year deal has to rank with the biggest head-scratchers of the off-season, a clear indication the Celtics still believe they can run with the likes of the Heat and Bulls. If the Celtics are looking up at either the Knicks or Nets come February, the fire sale could ignite, with Rondo already clearly positioned as the first out the door.

2. Will Derrick Rose be healthy come playoff time?

The vastly underrated Bulls were four games better than the Heat during the 2011-12 regular season and would have had home-court advantage in the playoffs if Rose hadn't blown out a knee and derailed Chicago's hopes. The Bulls haven't done much to put a better product on the floor this season, but maybe they don't have to. The Heat has yet to prove its superiority over Rose's Bulls.

1. Which Laker will have the ball in his hands with the game on the line?

With an established scorer on the low block (Howard) and one of the league's all-time-best decision-makers at the point (Nash), there's less reason than ever for Kobe Bryant to command the ball at crunch time. That's not to say one of the NBA's most clutch performers shouldn't get it. But if Steve Nash is deciding when Bryant is open, the Lakers figure to stand their best chance of having the type of season many have projected.

FIVE BIGGEST OFF-SEASON MOVES

5. Jeremy Lin heads to Houston.

When New York opted not to match Houston's offer sheet for the popular free agent, the Rockets gained a ticket-seller while the Knicks earned a one-way ticket to the outskirts of Lotteryland. Without Lin, label the New Yorkers: "Team Lego." You know, the expensive toy with no glue.

4. The Hornets rise to the top of the lottery.

New Orleans defied the odds to earn the right to select Kentucky standout Anthony Davis in the June draft. Suffice it to say, with Davis, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers leading the way, the odds of repeating as lottery champs will be much worse next time around.

3. The Nets move east.

Having success in a state-of-the-art venue would be nothing new in sports. Doing it with arguably the most balanced starting five in the league (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez) would really give Brooklyners something to get excited about.

2. Steve Nash takes less in search for more jewelry.

Few guys could keep a temperamental foursome like Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard happy. The unselfish two-time MVP is such a player.

1. Dwight Howard displaces Andrew Bynum in Los Angeles.

Bynum has potential. Howard has proven ability. At this point in Kobe Bryant's career, there's no doubt which type of player best suits his desire to win another championship.

FIVE BOLD PREDICTIONS

5. Jimmer Fredette will give Eastern basketball fans reason to stay up late.

The way the former BYU star has played this preseason, Sacramento Kings basketball is about to go global.

4. Blake Griffin will develop into the next Shaquille O'Neal -- as a brick-layer.

Did anyone bother to notice this guy made 53 percent or fewer of his free throws in three of the NBA's four full months last season? You can bet opposing coaches did.

3. The Nets will be the best team east of the Hudson. Easily.

Even the great Jason Kidd can't clean up the mess in the Garden.

2. Milwaukee's Monta Ellis will lead the league in scoring.

If you thought this guy shot a lot in the past, wait until you see him in a contract year.

1. Kyrie Irving will earn recognition as the best point guard in the NBA.

The sensational second-year Cavalier is one Chris Paul injury away from knocking on that door.

PREDICTED STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division

Brooklyn Nets

Boston Celtics

Philadelphia 76ers

New York Knicks

Toronto Raptors

Central Division

Chicago Bulls

Indiana Pacers

Cleveland Cavaliers

Detroit Pistons

Milwaukee Bucks

Southeast Division

Miami Heat

Atlanta Hawks

Washington Wizards

Orlando Magic

Charlotte Bobcats

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Northwest Division

Oklahoma City Thunder

Denver Nuggets

Utah Jazz

Minnesota Timberwolves

Portland Trail Blazers

Pacific Division

L.A. Lakers

L.A. Clippers

Golden State Warriors

Phoenix Suns

Sacramento Kings

Southwest Division

San Antonio Spurs

Memphis Grizzlies

Dallas Mavericks

New Orleans Hornets

Houston Rockets

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

Eastern Conference

First Round

1-Miami d. 8-Cleveland

2-Chicago d. 7-Atlanta

6-Philadelphia d. 3-Brooklyn

4-Indiana d. 5-Boston

Second Round

1-Miami d. 4-Indiana

2-Chicago d. 6-Philadelphia

Conference Semifinals

2-Chicago d. 1-Miami

Western Conference

First Round

1-L.A. Lakers d. 8-Memphis

2-Oklahoma City d. 7-Golden State

6-L.A. Clippers d. 3-Denver

5-Utah d. 4-San Antonio

Second Round

1-L.A. Lakers d. 5-Utah

6-L.A. Clippers d. 2-Oklahoma City

Conference Semifinals

1-L.A. Lakers d. 6-L.A. Clippers

NBA Finals

L.A. Lakers d. Chicago
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