NBA starts with a bang on Christmas Day
NEW YORK - Reuters
Kobe Bryant. AFP photoThe starter’s gun sounds Christmas Day on an National Basketball Association (NBA) sprint of a season that will reward cohesiveness and fitness in a compressed 66-game campaign.
The Miami Heat is likely to emerge as the frontrunners in that race, since ‘Big Three’ of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will try to make up for their NBA Finals disappointment at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.
After one season to work out the kinks, the Heat look ready to show they really have a hold on a league that used a five-month lockout of players to get a labor agreement that gave owners a bigger share of revenues and reshaped rules toward improving competitive balance.
James, who shied away from crunch-time responsibilities in the Finals, showed his commitment to claiming a maiden title by making an off-season pilgrimage to Houston for a tutorial on post moves from Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
In preparation for the season’s Dec. 25 start, teams held hurry-up training camps that coincided with a frenzied free-agent signing period that produced winners and losers.
The Heat index shot up, the Mavericks lost some firepower and the lowly Los Angeles Clippers created an instant rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant by adding premier point guard Chris Paul and other pieces.
The Chicago Bulls, who reached the Eastern Conference final against Miami, added a potentially key piece in shooting guard Richard Hamilton, who could provide just the complement to point guard Derrick Rose.
Veteran-laden teams like the Boston Celtics, with their aging impact trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, could start fast but may wear down come playoff time.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, with a young core of NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden leading the way, may be ready to reach the Finals.
The Knicks and Clippers are rounding into shape as possible contenders, but might need time to gel.
The Clippers, who have exceeded the .500 mark once in the last 19 years, have a new look. Besides Paul, they have also welcomed forward Caron Butler and guard Chauncey Billups to a squad that boasts Blake Griffin and talented center DeAndre Jordan.
LEBRON JAMES (MIAMI HEAT)
James is the most dominant and scrutinized player in the NBA. A two-time most valuable player (MVP) and seven-time All-Star, he has achieved virtually every individual honor the game has to offer. He won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team at Beijing but the one big thing still missing from his resume is an NBA championship. He made the finals with Cleveland in 2007 and with Miami last season but nothing less than winning the title this year will satisfy King James.
DIRK NOWITZKI (DALLAS MAVERICKS)
Nowitzki has been a revelation in the NBA since leaving his homeland in Germany to ply his trade in the U.S. Initially drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, he has spent his entire career with the Dallas Mavericks, leading them to the playoffs in each of the past 11 seasons. In 2007, the power forward was named the NBA’s MVP, becoming the first European to win the award, and last season, he was named MVP in the NBA Finals after leading the Mavericks to their first championship.
DERRICK ROSE (CHICAGO BULLS)
Rose upstaged LeBron James last season to win the NBA’s MVP award, becoming the youngest player to win the coveted prize after averaging 25 points per game. Two years earlier, the points guard was named Rookie of the Year after being selected by the Bulls as the first pick overall in the draft. He led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals but, despite averaging 27.1 points per game during the playoffs, they lost out to the Heat.
KOBE BRYANT (LOS ANGELES LAKERS)
One of the most accomplished players the NBA has produced, Bryant has achieved it all. He has won five championships with the Lakers and an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. as well as a string of individual awards, including the MVP in 2008 and the NBA Finals MVP in 2009 and 2010. At 33, he is showing no signs of slowing down but there are questions about the Lakers after their limp exit from last year’s playoffs.
CHRIS PAUL (LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS)
The most sensational transfer move after the end of the NBA lockout, Paul is expected to turn the Los Angeles Clippers into a title contender. He will not be alone in that case, since the 2010-11 Rookie of the Year and one of the league’s most exciting centers, Blake Griffin, will be there to help the point guard. At first, Paul’s move to the Los Angeles Lakers from the New Orleans Hornets was blocked by David Stern. Paul was admittedly shocked at the veto, but he might eventually concede that this was for the best.
Okur to team up with Deron againSALT LAKE CITY - AP
Turkish center Mehmet Okur was traded to the New Jersey Nets on Dec. 22, only three days before the new NBA season starts. The Utah Jazz have traded the All-Star center to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for a future second-round draft pick. The Nets needed another big man after learning Brook Lopez was out until at least February from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot.
Okur will team up with former Utah teammate Deron Williams in New Jersey. The Jazz drafted up-and-coming Turkish center Enes Kanter No. 3 overall this summer and have watched former No. 3 overall pick Derrick Favors blossom.
Okur played only 13 games last season because of injury, but said he was 100 percent entering training camp.
He has averaged 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in 617 career games with Detroit and Utah.
Okur, like Williams, has played in Turkish League during the NBA lockout.