Can anyone stop the Lakers?
Of course. The Lakers can stop the Lakers. No one should forget the clash of egos that led to the implosion in the 2004 NBA Finals and the dismal finale of the Shaq and Kobe pairing. While Kobe has matured into a more benevolent teammate and should feast off those Steve Nash passes, Dwight Howard seems to have an insatiable craving for daily drama (see Orlando). If he starts whining about touches or fails to mesh with Kobe/Nash/Pau Gasol, etc., watch for Kobe to intervene and stop the noise. Either that or this will be 2004 all over again, with the additions of veterans Gary Payton and Karl Malone failing to guarantee anything but headaches for Phil Jackson.
Is there an X-factor?
Injuries. This year, last year, the year before. Some things never change. And a number of teams already have to be nervous. In the Western Conference alone, Dirk Nowitzki (knee), Kevin Love (hand), Ricky Rubio (ACL), Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut (ankle) have been coping with serious issues or recovering from surgery. Curry's recurring ankle issues are particularly troublesome for the Warriors. His is a career in serious jeopardy, which is a shame considering that the Golden State point guard is a delight on and off the court.
Who will be the Rookie of the Year?
This one's easy. Anthony Davis was the consensus No. 1 draft pick, and he is expected to lead the class of 2012. Then again, remember Kwame Brown?
Who are the top five rookies?
What's the best thing about the Oklahoma City Thunder?
The organization's emergence as a small-market mythbuster. Kevin Durant is impossible not to like, but few could have predicted that NBA players would embrace one of the league's smallest and least-glitzy markets. Durant. Serge Ibaka. Russell Westbrook. And though his contract situation is uncertain, James Harden wants to stay, too.
What about the Kings and the persistent speculation about possible relocation?
For now, we're tabling the predictions. They were in Anaheim, then they weren't. They were in Seattle, then they weren't. Las Vegas? Kansas City? San Jose? They're still in Sacramento, and until further notice (or the filing of sale or relocation papers), we'll stick with basketball on the sports pages.
Who had the best offseason?
The Lakers acquired future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and the league's most dominating interior presence in Dwight Howard. On paper, you can't touch that.
Who had the worst offseason?
Mark Cuban. The Dallas Mavericks' super-aggressive owner not only gambled and lost out in the Deron Williams sweepstakes, but his aging superstar (Nowitzki) recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on a balky knee. Not good. Give Cuban credit for trying, though. He added O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Darren Collison, so the Mavs will remain competitive, just not contenders.
Which coach will be the league's earliest casualty?
Vinny Del Negro was almost a consensus choice in this category a year ago, and if his Clippers falter early, he'll be everyone's first choice again. But consider the monstrous expectations of the Brooklyn Nets. With the opening of the swanky Barclays Center and a chance to swipe some cachet from the Knicks, Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov won't be patient. And unlike his completed new arena, his Nets are still building. All of which means that third-year coach Avery Johnson needs to produce soon or else.
Who is the league's premier coach?
Until Gregg Popovich retires or takes a coaching sabbatical in Italy or Serbia or wherever else his international urges summon him, the Spurs boss is the gold standard. But his good buddy (and underrated colleague) George Karl surprises this season with the Denver Nuggets.