nba tipoff 13 568The Miami Heat look omnipotent as they start off their bid for a third consecutive NBA championship when the 2013-14 campaign tips off on Tuesday night. But can anyone hope to step up and knock them off their perch?

With the era’s ascendant player, LeBron James, still at the peak of his powers, few expect the Heat to cool off. In the pre-season poll of NBA General Managers, 75.9% thought they would complete a three-peat, with the next best pairing, Indiana and San Antonio, receiving a mere 6.9% of votes. Which is why Miami are clear favourites for the title, well ahead of the pack.

But it is certainly not a done deal. It’s hard to say the champs have significantly improved this offseason, unless Greg Oden becomes a walking miracle and Mike Beasley remains a model citizen, and there is no sign that Dwyane Wade’s decline has stalled. And as the Spurs demonstrated in the 2013 Finals, there are vulnerabilities to be exploited.

San Antonio can still go one better next June, offering the greatest value of the challengers. But if they are a proven commodity, everyone else among their peer group contains at least one X-factor. Oklahoma City, second favourites, will not have Russell Westbrook until December (which is no big deal) but their bench looks very thin (which is).

Chicago, with Derrick Rose seemingly healthy, will have to readjust to the return of the 2011 MVP from a year out but they’ll be hungry to excel. While the new-look LA Clippers and Brooklyn Nets could just as easily be busts as booms, despite lavish offseason upgrades.

Indiana at and Memphis should not be under-estimated again but neither look to have quite enough to storm Miami. Expect the Heat to remain as the hottest thing on South Beach.

Atlantic Division: Brooklyn
Bringing in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Celtics is the mother of all gambles but the Nets have thrown the dice, also adding Andrei Kirilenko to the mix. What they need, however, is Deron Williams to prove he can be a team-first player and for rookie coach Jason Kidd to illustrate that he doesn’t still remain the best point guard for this roster. Don’t entirely write off New York just yet while Toronto are poised to move out away from the basement. As for Boston and Philadelphia, there are few comforts to hold onto.

Central Division: Indiana
Consistency is the reason why the Pacers can prevail in the regular season ahead of Chicago, even though the title potential of the Bulls ultimately looks stronger. Cleveland will make up ground with a summer revamp but they’ll see Kyrie Irving to stay healthy and Andrew Bynum to stay in action. Milwaukee and Detroit are building for the future and can only sell hope.

Southeast Division: Miami
The Heat can’t be beat, it’s that simple. Atlanta and Washington could sneak into the playoffs if they can find some consistency with the Wizards even more intriguing following the acquisition of Marcin Gortat. While Orlando and Charlotte will again wallow in misery.

Overall Conference winner: Miami

Northwest Division: Oklahoma City
Figure the Thunder to be inconsistent until Westbrook returns and in any other division, that could cost them down the stretch. But Denver look to have regressed to give Brian Shaw a tough coaching initiation. Minnesota simply have not improved enough, and Utah and Portland remain off the pace.

Pacific Division: LA Clippers
It’s a two-way race between the Clippers and Golden State Warriors with Sacramento, Phoenix and the LA Lakers all destined for oblivion. The Warriors should take further striders this season but the Clips are a class above.

Southwest Division: San Antonio
This figures to be the toughest group with New Orleans due a major improvement and even Dallas with points to prove. San Antonio’s consistency should see them prevail ahead of Memphis and Houston.

Overall Conference Winner: Oklahoma City

With the NBA season about to begin, who will be the stellar individuals in the 2013-14 campaign?

Most Valuable Player
LeBron James is 1.90 (with to retain his MVP crown and with his importance increasing as Dwyane Wade declines, he will remain as Miami’s cornerstone. It’s 1.82 that anyone else comes up trumps but there’s always a reluctance, even with Michael Jordan, to keep anointing the same player year after year which could allow Kevin Durant to take his turn.

Rookie of the Year
80% of NBA GMs expect Orlando Magic freshman Victor Oladipo to take this award, despite being only the fifth pick in the Draft. He had a great summer league but he has been switched to a new position (point guard) where he’s never played before which adds a touch of uncertainty. Ben McLemore of Sacramento could get some love if the Kings can make any progress while number one pick Anthony Bennett can do likewise if Cleveland advance although we’re still not really sure of his ability to defend within Mike Brown’s system.

All odds:

Read a full season preview in the new issue of MVP Magazine, out next month

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