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Return of the King

LeBron, Heat usher in NBA season

LeBron James and the Miami Heat enter the NBA season as the team to beat as they look for their third straight league championship. (Reuters)

LeBron James and the Miami Heat enter the NBA season as the team to beat as they look for their third straight league championship. (Reuters)

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One of the Miami Heat’s challengers this season figures to be Chicago’s Derrick Rose, who missed all of last year with an ACL injury. (Reuters)

The Miami Heat enter the 2013-14 NBA season as favorites to win a third consecutive title, but with several teams sporting beefed up rosters the reigning champions, who usher in the NBA season with a matchup tonight against the Bulls, face their biggest challenge to the crown yet.

The Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors are among the teams that added key players in a bid to dethrone a Heat team that needed seven games to get by the aging San Antonio Spurs in last season’s final.

But knocking a team led by All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh off its perch will be no easy feat given their desire to become the first NBA franchise to win three consecutive titles since the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002.

The Nets, backed by Russian multi-billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, sent a message that they are going all-in on winning a championship in June by acquiring future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as part of an eight-player trade with the Boston Celtics.

But despite an upgraded lineup that features depth across the board, questions remain about how effective rookie head coach Jason Kidd, five months removed from playing in the NBA, will be on the sidelines.

The Indiana Pacers put a scare into the Heat by forcing a seventh game in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. Indiana wanted to make their bench better and they now boast one of the league’s best with the acquisition of C.J. Watson and the eventual return of Danny Granger from injury.

The Chicago Bulls should be another contender in the East as Derrick Rose, the NBA’s 2011 most valuable player, returns after sitting out all of last season while rehabilitating an ACL that was torn in the previous campaign.

The 25-year-old guard’s decision not to return late last season was the source of much debate in NBA circles but he can begin silencing any critics in his team’s season opener tonight.

For the Heat’s part, they made a low-risk, high-reward move by signing big man Greg Oden, a former first overall draft pick who was expected to dominate the league but has since undergone multiple knee operations and not played in years.

In the West, the Los Angeles Clippers also tapped into the Celtics’ pool of talent by trading for head coach Doc Rivers, who won an NBA title with Boston in 2008, a move that enabled them to get a long-term deal from star point guard Chris Paul.

Dwight Howard opted to leave the Los Angeles Lakers in his prime for less money to join a Houston team that is suddenly being considered a force in the West.

The Rockets, who lost in the first round of last season’s playoffs, are hoping the 27-year-old center can rediscover the three-time Defensive Player of the Year form he had in Orlando and work with James Harden to shake up the West.

Golden State also added their name to the list of contenders by signing free agent Andre Iguodala to round out a starting five lineup that is led by Stephen Curry and considered one of the most dangerous in the NBA.

San Antonio, led by Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, re-signed Manu Ginobli and Tiago Splitter as they look to erase memories of last year’s Finals loss to Miami.

The Spurs were so close to winning the title in Game Six that officials started bringing yellow tape out to block off the court for the Spurs’ trophy presentation but they squandered a five-point lead with 28 seconds left in regulation before losing in overtime and then falling in the decisive seventh game.

The Oklahoma City Thunder should be better than they were in last season’s playoffs once star point guard Russell Westbrook returns from knee surgery, but they failed to make any moves to ensure they maintain their grip on the West.

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Predicted order of finish

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division

1. Brooklyn Nets - Win-now approach has resulted in potentially volatile mix of veteran players, rookie coach and impatient owner. Over-the-top factor: Bench so deep, it could make playoff run on its own.

2. New York Knicks - Only thing less peaceful than Metta World Peace homecoming promises to be Madison Square Garden reaction to Stoudemire’s diminishing production at nearly quarter-million per game. Defending division champs can be comforted in knowledge there’s no competition for second in division.

3. Toronto Raptors - If ever a team was meant to move to Las Vegas, this is it. Club’s core features five long-time friends, led by Rudy Gay, who spend off-seasons together in Nevada, and up-and-comer Jonas Valanciunas clearly plays best ball in Vegas, having won summer-league MVP honors. Oh, moving west also might clear smoother path to playoffs.

4. Boston Celtics - No Garnett. No Pierce. No Doc Rivers. No chance. New coach Brad Stevens and Rookie of the Year candidate Kelly Olynyk are first two steps in turnaround Celtics fans can only hope happens half as fast as one down the street inside Fenway.

5. Philadelphia 76ers - Like overly excited child on first day of school, 76ers already have secured spot at front of line in race for front-row seat at Andrew Wiggins draft lottery. No (rehabbing Nerlens) Noel translates into Merry Christmas for all opponents during season that promises to be no (traded Jrue) Holiday in Philly.

Central Division

1. Chicago Bulls. When last seen with healthy Rose, Bulls were favored to beat Heat in 2012 playoffs. Not all that much has changed since then, although Chicago’s chief off-season addition (Mike Dunleavy) trumps anything Miami did.

2. Indiana Pacers. Beat Bulls by four games last season with each missing top gun (Granger and Rose). Difference this year: Rose has returned to MVP discussion, while Paul George-led Pacers treating Granger like stranger.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers - It’s hard moving up in rapidly improving division, but 24-win Cavs have nucleus to pull it off. Four recent lottery picks (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Bennett) join forces with four proven NBA talents (Bynum, Jack, Varejao and Earl Clark) to encapsulate type of makeover East has undertaken in recent years.

4. Detroit Pistons. Up-and-comer bears no semblance to last year’s 29-game winner, with imposing size (Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond), flashy athleticism (Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings) and the glue to hold it together (Billups). Playoff hopes fall onto shoulders of four-rookie bench and new coach Mo Cheeks.

5. Milwaukee Bucks. Not everything about East is improved this season. Western disappointments Mayo and Butler immediately become key figures on new-look Bucks squad that’s in serious need of high lottery pick - and just might get it.

Southeast Division

1. Miami Heat. No doubt pack is closing on Heat. Newcomers Oden and Michael Beasley add next-to-nothing to two-time champ that arguably enters season no better than third-best in East. Heat’s advantage: Cakewalk through division filled with second-rate ping-pong players.

2. Washington Wizards. Club played break-even ball after John Wall returned from knee injury last season, and now surrounds former No. 1 overall pick with best supporting cast of his career. Last two lottery picks (Bradley Beal and Otto Porter) combine with powerful frontcourt duo of Emeka Okafor and Nene to give Wall legitimate shot at first-ever postseason appearance.

3. Atlanta Hawks. Six consecutive years of postseason play wasn’t enough, so Hawks shot for moon over summer in hopes of landing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. They missed - winding up with Millsap, Elton Brand and in a much darker place - the lottery chase.

4. Charlotte Hornets. Memo to all teams believing brighter days lie ahead for teams maximizing losses (for improved draft position) and savings (for free-agent spending): Hornets got nothing better than Cody Zeller and Utah’s Jefferson with fourth pick and $41 million last off-season.

5. Orlando Magic. Won only 20 games last season and seem content to max out at about 25 this year, having made one significant addition (No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo). Bucks castoff Tobias Harris was team’s top player last season, and is projected to be again this year.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Pacific Division

1. Los Angeles Clippers. No stretch to call last year’s 56-win team Western favorite given improved depth (Darren Collison, JJ Redick, Jared Dudley and Bryon Mullens) and a big-time upgrade at coach in Rivers. Re-signing Chris Paul makes it all possible.

2. Golden State Warriors. How up-and-comer got Andre Iguodala without giving up anything of substance one of off-season’s biggest mysteries. Better depth should help keep Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut fresh come playoff time.

3. Los Angeles Lakers. Mike D’Antoni tops most “Watch” lists for potential in-season changes in part because season opens without Kobe Bryant (Achilles). Hard to see how last year’s 7-seed is better with Bryant hurt, Steve Nash a year older and Chris Kaman replacing Dwight Howard at center.

4. Sacramento Kings. Club attempting to build off neighboring Golden State’s success, stealing a part-owner (Vivek Ranadive), coach (Mike Malone) and key player (Carl Landry). Alas, some things never change - re-invested good money ($62 million) into a bad guy (DeMarcus Cousins).

5. Phoenix Suns. Fans should have fun scoreboard-watching as Suns own 2014 first-round picks of Minnesota and Indiana (as well as their own). Club will try two-point guard approach (Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic) that has failed elsewhere.

Northwest Division

1. Oklahoma City Thunder. Less of title contender now that chief sidekick for Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka is … Steven Adams? Comforting thought while Westbrook (knee) sits out: In-division competition weakest among Western divisions.

2. Portland Trail Blazers. Not hard moving up when two teams ahead of you (Denver and Utah) are in serious reverse mode. LaMarcus Aldridge predicting 33-win team will make playoffs? With Mo Williams now flanking Damian Lillard, more likely than you’d think.

3. Denver Nuggets. Longtime assistant Shaw finally gets his team, but one that surely will miss versatile Iguodala. Kenneth Faried leads what figures to be uphill climb for playoff spot with Danilo Gallinari (knee) also missing at season’s start.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves. Healthy Kevin Love makes improved team playoff contender. Injured Love means another losing season. Career average: 21.4 absences per year. Conclusion: Doesn’t look good.

5. Utah Jazz. Good-bye, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Hello, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Uh oh. Soon: Good-bye, Tyrone Corbin. Hello, lottery race.

Southwest Division

1. San Antonio Spurs. Much made of development of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, but title hopes still revolve around health of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Since first title in 1999, average wins in odd years: 58.3 (with three additional titles); in even years: 55.2 (no titles).

2. Memphis Grizzlies. Even with Hollins gone, little has changed following 56-win season and trip to Western finals. Promoted assistant Joerger must count on same production from Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, three projects Hollins successfully developed.

3. Houston Rockets. Howard and James Harden give McHale big-little combination comparable to any in league. Something Rockets have that few others can match: Huge bargaining chip (dependable center Omer Asik) if deadline upgrade is needed.

4. Dallas Mavericks. Carlisle co-favorite with D’Antoni and Corbin in first-fired sweepstakes as he attempts to sell offensive-minded newcomer Monta Ellis on defense. Dirk Nowitzki just another player now on club closer to bottom than top of strong division.

5. New Orleans Pelicans. Dell Demps early candidate for Executive of the Year after major upgrade featuring Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. Even nickname (Pelicans) is new for 27-win team with aspirations of break-even season.