NBA preview: Lakers look to put the heat on Miami

By Hayden Donnell

The NBA season gets underway today at 12pm after an offseason filled with blockbuster trades, signings and roster shake-ups. Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the season unfolds:

Thunder-struck
The Oklahoma City Thunder changed the power balance of the league by trading star guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for shooting guard Kevin Martin, promising rookie guard Jeremy Lamb and several first and second round draft picks just days before the season tip-off. NBA players and front offices reacted with shock. Harden was a crucial part of a Thunder team which made it to the finals just months ago. His beard was a potent symbol of basketball dominance. He was also much more popular than Russell Westbrook, who earned a max contract from the team before producing what Magic Johnson called the "worst game I've ever seen from a point guard in the finals".

Still, the trade makes sense. Harden wanted a max contract. If the Thunder had offered one, they would have been paying millions in 'luxury tax' under the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement. For the Lakers or the Knicks, that's no problem. For a small market team like Oklahoma, it can be crippling. Now they're going forward with a good scoring guard on an expiring contract (Martin), a possible future star (Lamb) and several picks, including one likely to be in the top 10, which could become key players.

More importantly, they keep flexibility to sign better players going forward, rather than pinning all their hopes on a star trio (Durant, Westbrook and Harden) and praying no-one breaks their leg. They'll be worse this year, but the future is still bright.

Oh, Houston will also be much better this year now they've got Harden. Stats guru John Hollinger says their projected win total just rose by ten.

The Lakers are back
The Lakers just can never slip into mediocrity for long. They responded to a disappointing 2011-12 second round playoff exit by somehow constructing a trade with their arch rival Phoenix Suns for veteran playmaker Steve Nash. The 38-year-old is the best point guard Kobe Bryant has ever played with. Then the team acquired the best centre in the league. Dwight Howard came to the team from Orlando in a four team trade which saw the Lakers send their own star centre Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Lakers now have four certain Hall of Fame players (Howard, Pau Gasol, Bryant and Nash) in their starting five and they shored up their bench by signing veteran forward Antawn Jamison and backup centre Jordan Hill. This team looks like it will be competing with the San Antonio Spurs and the slightly weakened Thunder to make it out of the Western Conference and into the finals. However, that's only if Bryant can rein in his ball hogging tendencies and defer to his newfound superstar teammates. So far the signs are not promising.

New York state of mind
The New York Knicks, one of the iconic NBA franchises, have been a joke for a long time. The team has been besieged by managerial incompetence and perpetually poor play for more than a decade. In recent years they signed star forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, only to find the pair had no chemistry and could not make it out in the first round of the playoffs.

Last year the Knicks received an unexpected blessing in the form of Harvard-educated Asian-American point guard Jeremy Lin. Mired at the end of the bench for the start of the season, injuries and incompetence spurred Lin into the starting line-up midseason. He responded with an array of unbelievable performances sparking the phenomenon known as 'Linsanity'.

Knicks management responded in typical fashion. They refused to pay Lin and let him walk to the Houston Rockets. Then they signed Raymond Felton, who was last seen looking overweight and uninterested in basketball by increasingly irate Portland Trailblazers fans, before setting about constructing the oldest team in NBA history. Veteran point guard Jason Kidd, 39, signed with the team (two days later he got drunk and drove his car into a ditch). Other signings included 38-year-old centre Marcus Camby and 40-year-old centre Kurt Thomas. The team are likely to make it to the playoffs again before again getting knocked out in the first or second round.

Meanwhile, across the East River in Brooklyn, a rival franchise has formed. The Brooklyn Nets, previously the New Jersey Nets, will be playing in the new Barclays Centre with the just-acquired (and overpaid) shooting guard Joe Johnson, re-signed point guard Deron Williams and a reasonably competent supporting cast. If they're lucky, they may be good enough to see some disillusioned Knicks fans defecting to their ranks.

Will the Heat repeat?
With all the drama swirling around them, the defending champion Miami Heat had a solid offseason. They signed veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen from the Boston Celtics and forward Rashard Lewis. Allen is a particularly good pickup for a team that creates a lot of wide open three point shots from the corners with dribble penetration. His signing has been controversial. Former teammate Kevin Garnett has officially broken up with Allen, deleting his number from his phone. The teams will get a chance to work out their differences in their season opening game on Wednesday in Miami.

The signings don't change the core of the team. Their bid to repeat as NBA champions still rests on the shoulders of the best player in the game, LeBron James, and his superstar teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. If they can stay healthy, this team has to be the favourite to take their second title in a row. James needs to keep winning them if he's really serious about beating Michael Jordan and becoming the best player of all time.

Season picks

Western Conference playoffs:
San Antonio Spurs
Oklahoma City Thunder
LA Lakers
Denver Nuggets
LA Clippers
Memphis Grizzlies
Utah Jazz
Minnesota Timberwolves

Conference champion:
San Antonio Spurs

Eastern Conference playoffs:
Miami Heat
Boston Celtics
Indiana Pacers
New York Knicks
Philadelphia 76ers
Brooklyn Nets
Atlanta Hawks
Chicago Bulls

Conference champion:
Miami Heat

NBA champion
Miami Heat

- nzherald.co.nz

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