NBA season to kick off with Miami as favourites
As league prepares to open 67th season, Miami seek to show rivals such as the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics they're still kings of the court
LeBron James had yet to claim an NBA championship when he arrived in Miami two years ago, boldly predicting multiple title runs with Heat teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Now, as the NBA prepares to open its 67th season tomorrow morning (Hong Kong time), "King" James is coming off a crowning achievement, having won his first NBA title with the Heat last June and then guiding the US Olympic team to London gold in August.
Now the Heat look to repeat and James, whose spectacular high-leaping skills have made him the NBA's most dynamic playmaker since Michael Jordan won six titles with Chicago in the 1990s, vows to back up his boasts and prove he is no one-hit wonder.
"I've accomplished a lot of goals but I'm still not satisfied with what I've done so far," James said. "We can be better than we were this past season. We have the potential to be a lot better. That is scary."
The Heat have added 37-year-old guard Ray Allen, the all-time NBA leader in three-point shots who must face his former Boston teammates when they visit for their opener, and veteran forward Rashard Lewis to a championship roster.
"You can feel the excitement," Wade said. "You can see the difference."
James matched Jordan as the only players in history to win an NBA title, Olympic gold and be named the NBA regular-season and NBA finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the same year.
"I don't think about what the other greats have accomplished," James said. "I have to make my own name."
Meanwhile across the continent, Kobe Bryant will try to match Jordan's career title total with a revamped Los Angeles Lakers' line-up that includes new big man Dwight Howard and star guard Steve Nash, both seeking their first NBA crowns.
"Dwight's defensive presence is probably the greatest I've seen in the history of the sport," Bryant said. "Steve's a great playmaker. Steve's IQ and ability to quarterback, it's not something I can naturally do.
"All the pieces fit. We all do different things. We just have to keep doing the things we have been doing our entire careers."
Bryant, 34, has played 1,161 regular-season games and 42,377 minutes and has two years worth of US$58.3 million remaining on what could be his final NBA deal. Having Howard and Nash as teammates, he figures they will give him better shooting chances and, the Lakers hope, another title opportunity.
"Those guys are such fantastic players, it would be tough to sit there and just double-team me all game long," Bryant said. "It's just not going to happen."
The Lakers and Heat must still contend with the Oklahoma City Thunder, powered by three-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant and star guard Russell Westbrook, although they'll be without last season's NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden.
Harden was traded on the eve of the season to Houston, where he'll join a team hoping Taiwanese-American star Jeremy Lin can continue to work the magic he showed last year with the Knicks.
Durant and Westbrook played for the US Olympic gold medal squad, which beat teammate Serge Ibaka's Spanish squad in the London final.
While the Thunder's young stars are the NBA's wave of the future, San Antonio remains in the title hunt with veterans Tim Duncan, France's Tony Parker and Argentina's Manu Ginobili while the Los Angeles Clippers are on the rise with All-Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul and veterans Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom.
The Celtics remain a power in the East with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and guard Rajon Rondo while the Chicago Bulls could still threaten despite Derrick Rose still sidelined by a left knee injury suffered in last season's play-off opener.
New York boasts Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler but the Knicks will have some new cross-town competition in the Brooklyn Nets, who move from New Jersey into a new US$1 billion arena and have some firepower of their own in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
The upcoming campaign will be the final full season for NBA commissioner David Stern, who last Thursday announced he will leave the job on February 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after taking over the league in 1984.
During his last campaign, Stern wants to see a reduction in amateur dramatics on the court, with the league announcing a crackdown on "floppers" who intentionally fall to trick referees into calling fouls.
A first violation brings a warning but a second brings a US$5,000 fine and the fines grow up to US$30,000 for a fifth breach.