Who's got game to hit the play-offs
THE defending champions San Antonio Spurs and the rapidly rebuilt Cleveland Cavaliers are two obvious contenders for the National Basketball Association championship.
But in the 82-game grind of the regular season, which begins this morning (Singapore time), neither team should become too comfortable.
Here is a look at the possible title contenders:
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the rare position of not being favoured to win their division but being a challenger for the NBA title. It comes down to how quickly and effectively Kevin Durant returns from a fractured right foot.
Before his return, the team should look for ways to keep Kendrick Perkins off the court while limiting Russell Westbrook's minutes so that his legs are fresh for the play-offs.
The Los Angeles Clippers' core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be complemented by an array of outside shooters, including the returning J. J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, as well as newcomers Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes.
With Paul's point-guard position taking a toll on his body and with the improved Jordan entering the final season of his contract, the time for the Clippers to win is now.
The Golden State Warriors will be hot on their heels. They have stuck with Klay Thompson, a fantastic two-way shooting guard, and will live with the two-time All-Star David Lee at power forward. The Warriors had 51 wins last season, but could improve by saying hello to the versatile Shaun Livingston and goodbye to coach Mark Jackson, who seemed ill-suited for this roster.
The Los Angeles Lakers let Pau Gasol, arguably the team's best player, leave, but acquired decent depth with Ed Davis and Jeremy Lin. If nothing else, watching a grizzled Kobe Bryant try to coexist with Nick Young should provide plenty of laughs.
In the league's deepest division, the Spurs outclass the competition. It would be easy to chalk up the team's success as a product of having Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but San Antonio have done a tremendous job each season of complementing their core. After Kawhi Leonard's breakthrough play-off performance, the team's Big Three is more of a Big Four.
A shrewd move this year was drafting the versatile Kyle Anderson. It will help that he is learning from the game's best coach, Gregg Popovich.
The Dallas Mavericks are the most improved team in the division, considering the additions of Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler, but that is balanced out by having to decide between Raymond Felton and Jameer Nelson as point guard. The biggest question is whether last season's breakout performance by Monta Ellis was a fluke.
The Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets have rosters that could easily lead to deep play-off runs. The Rockets lost Parsons and Lin, but should not miss them with Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley starting. The Grizzlies do not have much time left with an ageing core, but a full season of Courtney Lee and the addition of Vince Carter will help.
The Toronto Raptors found a core to build around in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. If Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas can raise their game this season as well, Toronto should have no trouble winning one of the league's weakest divisions.
The Brooklyn Nets, having said goodbye to Paul Pierce, are the division's second-best team by default. Kevin Garnett seems washed up, Brook Lopez is injured again, Deron Williams may never be the same and Joe Johnson is among the game's most overpaid players, but that core should still be a play-off team in the East.
The Cavaliers acquired LeBron James and Kevin Love, two of the 10 best players in the game, but could end up losing the division to the Chicago Bulls if they do not mesh quickly.
That being said, the sky is the limit for Cleveland considering the talent now surrounding the incumbent point guard Kyrie Irving. James offers an upgrade in every sense of the imagination, and Love is one of the best shooting power forwards in history. The team are an immediate title contender.
The Bulls, however, will put up quite a fight, especially if Derrick Rose is back to full health. In his absence, Joakim Noah developed into the best passing centre in the game, Jimmy Butler became an elite wing and the team signed Gasol to strengthen a frontcourt that already had defensive ace Taj Gibson. Adding two shooters - Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott - could make this team deadly.
The emerging Washington Wizards could hardly ask for a better role model for their young players than Pierce, who can still provide plenty of production as well. Once Bradley Beal returns from injury, he and John Wall will form one of the league's most effective backcourts. And the frontcourt, led by Marcin Gortat and Nene, should get some help with the addition of DeJuan Blair.
The Miami Heat, dealing with the loss of James, will obviously take a hit, but they have added enough talent to continue to be a play-off team even if Dwyane Wade needs quite a bit of rest.