he NBA season kicks off Tuesday night, marking the start of a race for the NBA championship that won't end until June 2013. And as players across the continent take the court, there are no shortage of intriguing narratives to follow and questions to be answered. What should fans be looking for in what promises to be "the greatest basketball season in 20 years?" Here, seven of the biggest questions at the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season:
1. Will newly minted champion LeBron James be better than ever?
Miami Heat superstar LeBron James definitively silenced his critics last season by winning his third MVP award, his first NBA Finals MVP, his second Olympic gold medal, and, of course, his first NBA championship. Some analysts believe that LeBron will have trouble matching last year's bevy of accomplishments, while others believe he'll be better than ever. And the man himself? "I want to be one of the greats," James told NBC Sports. "So I'm not satisfied at all with just winning one [championship]. I want to continue to improve and continue to put myself in position to win championships." Indeed, I expect LeBron to win another championship and another MVP this year, says Bill Simmons at Grantland. "If it happens — and I think it will — that means two straight titles and four MVP trophies in five years. ... For the first time, we could start thinking about [LeBron] in Jordanian terms."
2. Is Anthony Davis the real deal?
The early favorite for Rookie of the Year is the New Orleans Hornets' lanky 19-year-old big man, Anthony Davis, who was drafted in the No. 1 spot after shining during his freshman year at the University of Kentucky, where he won a national title. The memorably uni-browed Davis has looked great in the preseason. Against the Heat, for instance, Davis scored 24 points, and notched 11 rebounds, three steals, and a block. ESPN already compares Davis to modern greats like James and Tim Duncan, but it remains to be seen whether The Brow can live up to his early promise over the long NBA season.
3. Will the Thunder's risky James Harden trade pay off?
Fans were stunned by the Oklahoma City Thunder's unexpected decision to trade the super-talented James Harden to the Houston Rockets in return for a package of future draft picks and players that included reliable scorer Kevin Martin. Though Harden is widely credited with helping the Thunder reach the finals last season, complex contract negotiations and luxury tax rules eventually spurred OKC to dump him. Harden is expected to shine in Houston — he's immediately the best player on the Rockets instead of the third best star on the Thunder. And Oklahoma City is clearly worse off in the short term, says Zach Lowe at Grantland. "The fall from 'true contender' to 'fringe contender' is a steep one — one of the largest a team can take. The Harden deal unquestionably hurts the Thunder's odds of dethroning Miami."
4. Will Linsanity take Houston by storm?
Also new to Houston: Jeremy Lin, the former New York Knick who stunned the world and earned a legion of fans when he came off the bench last winter with a series of unexpectedly stellar performances. (Lin was then sidelined by a knee injury in March.) When the Knicks ripped out the hearts of many fans by letting Lin go in the off-season, the Rockets picked him up for $25 million over three years — an indication, says Bleacher Report, that Houston expects Linsanity to begin all over again. But now that he's a known factor, Lin will face higher expectations and stiffer competition — and it's still not clear if he's up to the challenge.
5. Can the NBA crack down on "flopping"?
After year of grumbling but no real action, the NBA has announced plans to take a hard line against "flopping" — the exaggerated falls some players intentionally make in order to trick referees into calling a foul on another player. Under the new rules, players will get a warning the first time they flop, then be fined $5,000 for a second violation, $10,000 for a third, $15,000 for a fourth, and $30,000 for the fifth, with six or more potentially leading to a suspension. But can the referees really judge which falls are fake and which are real?
6. Will the Nets shine in Brooklyn?
After innumerable disappointing seasons in New Jersey, fans are expecting big things from the newly christened Brooklyn Nets, who will play their inaugural season in the brand-new Barclays Center. Though the Nets failed to trade for coveted center Dwight Howard in the off-season, they successfully re-signed star point guard Deron Williams and traded for Joe Johnson, one of the league's best shooting guards. With the Knicks once again a drama-burdened mess, the Nets might just be the best NBA team in New York City.
7. Will the Lakers dominate the league — or devolve into a sideshow?
The Lakers' top four players — Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol — are arguably the most talented and fearsome foursome in the entire league. Indeed, says Hadarii Jones at Bleacher Report, "it's pretty hard to argue with the theory that Los Angeles has the best starting lineup on paper, but what's more impressive is how seamlessly the pieces fit together." But chemistry issues could still ruin everything. "Is Bryant willing to relinquish the reins of the offense to Nash while potentially sacrificing some of his own offense for the greater good? How Bryant and the Lakers answer that question could determine how deep they go in the 2013 NBA postseason."
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