2010-11 NBA Preview

Michael Wilbon: Christmas is usually about the right time to join the NBA season.But this season isn't like the others, not the start of it anyway. Not since Michael Jordan's return-to-basketball in 1995-96 when the Chicago Bulls cultivated a celebrity and a season of winning previously unknown in the sport has a team generated so much fascination before playing its first game. Column

Can the Heat win 70 games?

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh flexed their power last summer by bypassing the traditional team-building methods and using free agency to establish a ready-made NBA power. The SuperFriends' decisions -- and especially James's ego-fest, "The Decision" -- angered NBA legends and some fans (especially those in Cleveland and Toronto). But it also immediately made the Heat a hated yet irresistible team. Miami is blessed with a two-time MVP in James, a former NBA Finals MVP in Wade and a perennial all-star in Bosh; an excess of riches that has raised the expectations for the Heat to possibly contend with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen's 72-win Chicago Bulls from 1995-96.

Is this the year Kobe starts to decline?

Kobe Bryant faces a challenge more threatening than Miami or Boston in his pursuit of surpassing Magic Johnson and matching Michael Jordan with his sixth NBA championship: His athletic mortality. The Los Angeles Lakers have played 67 postseason games the past three seasons, and Bryant has already logged more career minutes than Larry Bird and Johnson. He recently turned 32 and is coming off right knee surgery. The Lakers have enough talent surrounding Bryant to win the Western Conference for the fourth consecutive year, but they will likely need him to stay at an elite level to win a third straight NBA title.

Did Boston get better or just older?

The defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics decided to make another run with the old gang, as they retained graybeards Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and added two O'Neals (Shaquille and Jermaine) on the wrong side of 30. The last two moves provide size and insurance while center Kendrick Perkins recovers from a serious knee injury that will keep him out through January. Boston got deeper after adding defensive-minded guard Delonte West, and Kevin Garnett should look better one year removed from knee surgery. But much like last season, the Celtics will only go as far as Rajon Rondo takes them.

Will Carmelo Anthony be traded?

Carmelo Anthony watched his former Olympic teammates form a super team in Miami and began pondering why he didn't sign an extension in 2006 that would have allowed him to become a free agent last summer. Anthony isn't interested in signing a three-year,$65 million extension in Denver with the Nuggets regressing since reaching the Western Conference finals in 2009. Now Anthony is hoping for a trade -- preferably to New York. Denver has undergone ownership and front-office changes and will have to improve quickly or find the best deal for its franchise player. Otherwise, the Nuggets could be left with nothing if Anthony leaves in free agency.

Is OKC ready to unseat the Lakers?

Kevin Durant became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history, finished second in MVP voting and led the Thunder to a playoff appearance last season. He is also coming off a virtuoso performance in Turkey last summer, as he led the United States to a gold medal in the world championship. With the help of Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, Durant is expected to have a similar impact for Oklahoma City, where the Thunder is poised to move from being the league-wide darling that pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the first round to a Western Conference power.

Will there be a lockout next season?

The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30 and a lockout seems all but assured with owners claiming to have lost hundreds of millions of dollars and complaining that the system is beyond broken. Players don't have a problem with the current salary structure but NBA Commissioner David Stern has made it clear the league wants player costs to drop by at least $750 million so owners can once again profit on their investments. Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was fined $100,000 last month for expressing his desire for the NBA to adapt a hard salary cap similar to the NHL model.

- Michael Lee

Listed in predicted order of finish, along with predicted record this season and head coach.

1. Miami Heat

68-14/Erik Spoelstra

If LeBron James won 127 regular season games the past two seasons with a supporting cast of Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams, the Heat should be especially dominant now that he is playing alongside Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

2. Orlando Magic

60-22/Stan Van Gundy

The Magic has refused to cede the East or Florida to Miami. Despite faltering in the conference finals, Orlando still has the league's best big man (Dwight Howard) and is incredibly deep.

3. Boston Celtics

55-27/Doc Rivers

Boston got older but believes championship banner No. 18 is in range. After losing on the road in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the Celtics learned a lesson about not taking the regular season seriously.

4. Chicago Bulls

49-33/Tom Thibodeau

Derrick Rose is entering his third season -- a time when all-star caliber players often take that leap. Carlos Boozer will miss time with a broken hand, but the Bulls should still be dangerous.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

47-35/Scott Skiles

The Bucks made a surprising playoff run last year, even after losing Andrew Bogut to injury. They should keep ascending with Brandon Jennings improving and Bogut (somewhat) healthy.

6. Atlanta Hawks

46-36/Larry Drew

The Hawks maintained some continuity by retaining Joe Johnson, but the new coach will have to make Atlanta more efficient offensively and keep the defensive philosophies of his predecessor.

7. Charlotte Bobcats

39-43/Larry Brown

Brown worked miracles while leading the Bobcats to their first playoff appearance last season. He has Stephen Jackson for a full season, and D.J. Augustin finally gets a chance to run the team.

8. Detroit Pistons

37-45/John Kuester

This is a truly mismatched bunch. The Pistons will need Greg Monroe and Austin Daye to step up right away, but they still have intriguing leftovers from the 2004 championship team.

- Michael Lee

Listed in predicted order of finish, along with predicted record this season and head coach.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

59-23/Phil Jackson

The two-time defending champions face questions about the health of Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, but they should easily win the West with a rested Pau Gasol and the additions of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

57-25/Scott Brooks

Kevin Durant justifiably gets more attention, but Russell Westbrook played a major role in the team's rise last season. Both will need to stay healthy after spending the summer with Team USA.

3. Dallas Mavericks

55-27/Rick Carlisle

Dallas brings back almost the same team that flamed out in the first round last season. The Mavs added size with Tyson Chandler, but need boosts from Rodrigue Beaubois's possible breakout and Caron Butler's contract push.

4. Portland Trail Blazers

54-28/Nate McMillan

Portland overcame the Jail Blazer era but now has bad luck with big men. Even if Greg Oden returns, the Trail Blazers have to get Brandon Roy and Andre Miller to coexist.

5. San Antonio Spurs

53-29/Gregg Popovich

With the addition of Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker playing for a new contract, the Spurs won't have to rely as much on Tim Duncan. They will need a healthy Manu Ginobili and the young players to produce.

6. Utah Jazz

53-29/Jerry Sloan

Utah recovered from the loss of Carlos Boozer by trading for Al Jefferson. Deron Williams will still carry the Jazz, which is hoping for a few Andrei Kirilenko sightings and Mehmet Okur to stay healthy.

7. Houston Rockets

48-34/Rick Adelman

Yao Ming will be limited to 24 minutes a game, but that's 24 more than last season, when the Rockets still won 42 games. Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks should help Houston return to playoffs.

8. Denver Nuggets

47-35/George Karl

Carmelo Anthony reportedly wants out, but the Nuggets would like to make trades to keep him. If he stays, he could have a dominant performance before entering free agency.

- Michael Lee

© The Washington Post Company