NBA

Short NBA season long on contenders

Marques Johnson predicts who will win NBA hardware this season.
Marques Johnson predicts who will win NBA hardware this season.
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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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OKLAHOMA CITY

Kevin Durant seems to have the right idea.

If you want a shot at wearing the crown, you don’t celebrate your upcoming season by throwing a Miami Heat-like preseason celebration. You take a good look at the real King and figure out what he did to get there.

Maybe that’s why Durant, in preparation for another NBA regular season that kicks off Sunday, has spent some quality time working on Dirk Nowitzki’s one-footed, off-balance, can’t-be-blocked signature shot.

Take note, league. Among the many teams with a legitimate shot to dethrone the Mavericks as defending world champions are the Thunder and their unique weapon — a player with Dirk-like skills.

“I kind of gave a wink to Dirk because, like I said, I stole that from him,” Durant said this week about using the shot in a preseason game against the Mavs. “He’s such a great basket-maker at that shot and he does it on every type of play, going to the middle, baseline. I’m just trying to perfect it a little bit like he has. It’s going to take me a long time, but I’m working on it.”

Yep. Wanna be the king, study him first. Then go after him and his crew. LeBron James, please take note.

“He’s been working on a lot of the moves that Dirk has mastered,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said. “He has the length, and he has the touch that he can score in different areas of the floor like Dirk. It takes years to master that but Kevin has a pretty good package himself.”

This season, for the Thunder as much as everyone else, is going to be about many things: A compressed 66-game schedule that will take a heavy toll on players’ bodies who have not had a long enough training camp and preseason to be ready. A continued clustering of multiple stars on teams, from Miami to New York to Los Angeles to Boston, that creates the potential for more Heat-like juggernauts (and, perhaps, pressure-fueled flameouts).

And the question of what, exactly, the young guns coming up like the Clippers and Thunder can do and what, exactly, older teams like Dallas, San Antonio and the Lakers have left.

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GUESS WHO?

These 10 compelling characters will provide this season's NBA drama.

For the Thunder, who have two young stars in Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook — as well as a defensive force in Kendrick Perkins and other key guys around them — the key might be doing like the Mavs: Believe in what you have, keep working at it, and wait for your moment.

Only, in the NBA about to unfurl Sunday, there are going to be a lot of dangerous teams with a lot of chances to make the moment their own.

“I really think that (Dallas is still) as good as any team in the league,” Brooks said. “But there’s other good teams in the West. The Spurs won 60, or close to 60 games last year, the Lakers are always going to be good, there’s some good, younger teams coming up.”

There are good teams everywhere. Out East, the Miami Heat return their Big Three and a team loaded with wings, question marks, calm and injuries.

They, as much as anyone, will go a long way toward dictating the flow and future of the season.

The Heat’s wings include the Big Three, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Mike Miller. Haslem is healthy, but Battier has been sidelined with a quad injury and Miller is expected to miss the start of the season because of a hernia.

The question marks stand most notably at center, where Joel Anthony is defensively sound but offensively, well, absent. Eddy Curry is an experiment with variables that include a poor track record and signs that he already might not physically be healthy enough for even a shortened season. Those injuries aside, though, there is a calm in Miami that might just make this Heat team what they were last year minus all that drama. Whether that also makes LeBron less likely to mentally vanish when things get tough remains to be seen.

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FORTUNE TELLING

Randy Hill gazes into his crystal basketball and boldly makes these NBA season predictions.

Boston remains dangerous, if a year older, and the New York Knicks are an intriguing team. With Baron Davis injured for an undetermined amount of time, they’ll rely on Carmelo Anthony at point-forward. But along with Amar’e Stoudemire and new addition Tyson Chandler they’re a team with three of its own stars and enough firepower to score on anyone. Depth is another matter, and defense is always worrisome under Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo offensive system, though he insists this team will play serious defense this year. If that’s true, and some of their guys emerge from the bench, they could be surprisingly great.

The Bulls remain the Bulls but with Rip Hamilton plugged in at shooting guard. And while the Dwight Howard drama engulfs Orlando, the Magic still have, for now, Dwight Howard.

And that’s just the East.

Out West, as Brooks alluded, there’s an equally full slate of good teams. The Mavericks lost Chandler, Finals hero J.J. Barea and Caron Butler but added Lamar Odom, Delonte West and Vince Carter. It’s an interesting swap, and they still have their core, but no one’s sure yet how that new mix will gel and to what extent this new-look team will be better or worse off than last season. Still, at least a few NBA executives said privately they believe Dallas will be better this year once all the parts learn to work together.

Sans Odom, the Los Angeles Lakers have an angry Kobe, no Phil Jackson, a new coach with an enormous amount of challenges in Mike Brown and now not quite the star power we’ve come to expect of them. But, as noted, they have Kobe. And with Kobe, anything is possible, particularly when he still gets to play with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

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Then, amazingly enough, there’s this: The Los Angeles Clippers have the potential to be anywhere between pretty good and downright amazing. With Chris Paul now a Clipper, Blake Griffin’s game has the potential to be that much better. Throw in the parts around them — Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, DeAndre Jordan and Butler — and they’re not to be underestimated.

San Antonio won 61 games last year, Memphis ran the Spurs out of the playoffs, Denver is deep and Portland could be good as well.

That’s an awfully impressive — and fun — run of teams plying for dominance. Sunday’s Christmas Day opening slate sees five games that’ll get things going, including Heat-Mavs, Lakers-Bulls, Thunder-Magic, Knicks-Boston and Warriors-Clippers.

It’s a great tip-off for a deep league with an incredible cast of players and storylines — and a lot of challengers for the throne. Dirk & Co. might be defending champions, but there are 10 or more teams that could unseat them if things break the right way.

Starting Sunday, they and everyone else get a shot to show just what they got.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter @foxsportsreiter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.

Tagged: Bulls, Mavericks, Clippers, Lakers, Heat, Knicks, Magic, Thunder, Dirk Nowitzki, Mike Miller, Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Dwight Howard, Delonte West, Kevin Durant

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