Continued from page 1

There are other contenders. The Celtics were minutes away from an 18th title last season before Los Angeles rallied for an 83-79 victory in Game 7. Orlando has won 59 games each of the last two seasons, and the West is deep in potential threats to the Lakers’ reign.

Fresh off winning MVP honors after leading the U.S. to the gold medal at the world championship, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was voted by general managers as their pick to win the NBA’s award this season. The Rookie of the Year race could come down to the last two No. 1 draft picks: the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, who missed last season with an injury, and Washington’s lightning-quick point guard, John Wall.

“The guy’s really good, probably one of the fastest, most physically gifted players that we’ll have in the league,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said of Wall. “I hope he never learns to shoot real well, because then he’ll be unguardable.”

D’Antoni’s team missed out on James but landed Amare Stoudemire, who seems poised to put up big numbers under his former coach in Phoenix. Carlos Boozer left Utah to give the Chicago Bulls the inside scoring presence they’ve lacked, and other clubs were bolstered by smaller moves during the summer shopping season.

It sets up the potential for a thrilling season, but trouble lurks beyond that.

The collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30, 2011, and the NBA and union are nowhere close to a new one after more than a year of talks. Commissioner David Stern frequently calls this a golden age for basketball but insists it’s come at a cost, with leaguewide losses of about $370 million last season.

The players dispute that figure, pointing to huge increases in revenues and season ticket sales, and vow to resist the significant changes owners are seeking in salaries and contract structures. If progress isn’t made during the season, Stern could be faced with handing out the Larry O’Brien trophy in the middle of June, then locking out his players two weeks later.

“(The season) is going to be great, but unfortunately, as we’ve demonstrated to the players association, we’re going to lose money,” Stern said. “So if we could just make this into a modestly profitable enterprise, that would take a golden age into a platinum age.”

A work stoppage would seem harder to accept after the momentum the NBA has picked up in recent months. The seven-game finals featuring the league’s best rivalry delivered strong TV ratings, free agency news dominated sports pages in July, and trade speculation involving superstars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul emerged late in the summer.

Interest in the Heat should keep it going, especially when James returns to Cleveland on Dec. 2 and when Miami visits the Lakers on Christmas. And maybe they’ll be back in Los Angeles in June.

A James-Bryant duel in the finals looked on track the last two years, but James didn’t have enough help to get him there. Those problems seem as forgotten as cold winters now that he’s landed in Miami.

“That’s a team that’s loaded,” ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said, “and I think it’s going to be a great year for them.”