After LeBron James and the Heat fell short against Dirk Nowitzki, right, and the Mavericks in the NBA Finals, Miami’s star-studded lineup has much to prove this season. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Can the Clippers surpass the Lakers?

After David Stern decided to give Chris Paul to the other, mostly forgotten professional basketball team in Los Angeles, Blake Griffin dubbed the Clippers “Lob City” because they will likely lead the league in alley-oop dunks. The addition of Paul makes the Clippers relevant, and the team has a legitimate chance to steal the spotlight from their Staples Center co-tenants because it also signed Caron Butler, scooped up Chauncey Billups from the amnesty scrap heap and re-signed athletic big man DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers have the 16 championships and the “jewelry” that Kobe Bryant likes, but they have been upstaged, thanks to Stern’s controversial veto of a three-team trade that would have put Paul in purple and gold. The team also has taken a few steps back with Phil Jackson retiring and General Manager Mitch Kupchak compounding the Paul fiasco by dumping valued sixth-man Lamar Odom on Dallas for the equivalent of pocket lint. With Bryant dealing with his athletic mortality and a pending divorce, the Lakers will have a hard time returning to prominence – unless they can make a big trade, for Dwight Howard, perhaps?

Can the Heat claim that elusive title?

The pressure to win “not one, not two, not three. . . ” or more NBA championships won’t ever go away, but the scrutiny has subsided some for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. A year removed from their controversial and trend-setting union, the talents-taken-to-South-Beach crew has worked through many of its chemistry concerns and should be more comfortable with its roles. Miami still has the NBA’s most star-studded lineup and will remain the league’s marquee attraction. The addition of free agent Shane Battier and having a healthy Udonis Haslem for a full season should make the team better defensively. Despite being a heavy favorite, the Heat won’t accomplish the ultimate mission unless James can overcome his perplexing disappearing act during last year’s NBA Finals and is able to elevate his game in June.

What will Dallas do for an encore?

Mark Cuban spent nearly a billion dollars, in payroll and luxury tax penalties, on the Mavericks the past decade to bring the first NBA championship to Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki finally paid back his big-mouth, big-spending owner by emerging as the most unstoppable force last postseason and claiming NBA Finals MVP honors after upsetting Miami. But the Mavericks are trying to accomplish something radical this season: going for a repeat while saving cap room for 2012. Dallas lost Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson in free agency, replacing them with cheaper, short-term commitments in Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West so the team will have money next summer to chase Deron Williams or Dwight Howard.

Is it Oklahoma City time out West?

Kevin Durant plopped down like a frog and placed his hand over his mouth in the closing seconds of the Thunder’s loss to Dallas in the conference finals, realizing that Oklahoma City had come close but wasn’t ready to be the best. Durant took out his frustrations on all contenders this offseason, dominating every exhibition game he could find and working on fixing his flaws. Now Durant and Russell Westbrook must find a way to become better leaders and take the steadily improving Thunder to the next level. Having a sleeker Kendrick Perkins for a full season and an improving James Harden should help.

Will the lockout lead to lousy ball?

The NBA decided to a cram a 66-game season into a 119-day period after a five-month lockout that accomplished what again, actually? Players and owners agreed to a 50-50 split of revenues and a more punitive luxury tax. But now the two sides will have to cross their fingers and hope that the product that comes as a result of teams playing three nights in a row and five games in six days won’t be such an eyesore that the fans turn away. And veteran teams with rosters cluttered with players born in the 1970s — such as Boston, Dallas and the Lakers — hope they can stay healthy and avoid debilitating injuries during a season that could resemble cooking a holiday meal in a microwave.

Will Orlando deal Dwight Howard before the all-star break?

Dwight Howard has watched the Orlando Magic regress each season since reaching the 2009 NBA Finals and now wants out. The Magic will have to either find another star to pair with the league’s best big man and most dominant defensive force or watch a repeat of recent melodramas involving Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Chris Paul. The New Jersey Nets are prepared to poach, but the decision to move Howard is perhaps more complicated than the NBA’s dilemma when it dictated which Los Angeles team would get Paul. The Magic might want to hold on to Howard at least until after the All-Star Game — or risk a rather uncomfortable return when Orlando hosts the festivities in February.

— Michael Lee