For years, basketball fans have dreamed of LeBron James facing Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.
This season offers arguably the best chance for hoops lovers to get their wish. James, who stars alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, leads a Miami Heat team fresh off winning their first championship of the Big Three era.
Bryant remains the focal point of a Los Angeles Lakers team that added veteran star talent in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Pau Gasol remains in the fold, along with Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest).
Both the Heat and Lakers are built around superstars and have, on paper, the depth to go the distance. Heading into the 2012-2013 NBA season, which the squads kick off on Tuesday, 30 October, it’s hard to see any other team outplaying them.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics are again underdogs to challenge Miami deep in the playoffs. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are in the twilight of their careers and they lost Ray Allen to the Heat. However, Boston has enough experience with new recruits like Jason Terry to be the best in the Atlantic division one more time.
Their division rivals figure to step up though. With Andrew Bynum in tow, the Philadelphia 76ers have arguably the East’s big man. Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Jason Kidd are good enough to make the New York Knicks competitive. The big surprise should be the Brooklyn Nets, with Deron Williams getting just enough support from Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace.
Miami should watch out for the Chicago Bulls, if Derrick Rose gets back to the court. His brutal torn ACL injury will keep him sidelined for months and will likely make the Bulls a side hovering around .500. Winning the Central division comfortably this year should be the Indiana Pacers, behind Danny Granger.
With Miami a given to win the Southeast division, the only question is whether the Atlanta Hawks or Orlando Magic will be in the playoffs. With the Magic in rebuilding mode, Al Horford’s Hawks get the benefit of the doubt.
The Western Conference offers a similar story. It’s hard to see the Lakers as anything but Pacific division winners; but don’t forget about the other Los Angeles team. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford make the Clippers a dangerous squad that could produce another good playoff run.
Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder give up some size to the Lakers but with team-mates like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, there is still plenty of youth and athleticism to dominate the Northwest division. The addition of Andre Iguodala will continue to make the Denver Nuggets a relevant threat.
Every year, the San Antonio Spurs are counted out and then routinely top the standings. Expect history to repeat itself as Tim Duncan and the innovative Spurs find a way to top the Southwest division again. San Antonio, though, will be looking over their shoulder at Marc Gasol’s Memphis Grizzlies.
The last two playoff spots in the West should be clinched by Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks and a Houston Rockets team that can be surprisingly good behind Jeremy Lin.