The 2010-2011 National Basketball Association season is set to tip off on Tuesday with great anticipation.
The Los Angeles Lakers will be aiming for a third consecutive NBA championship. They were the last team to achieve that feat in 2002. But they face a daunting task with the reloaded Miami Heat.
Miami was the big winner in the off-season, signing two-time league Most Valuable Player LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers and perennial all-star Chris Bosh from the Toronto Raptors. Teaming with star Miami veteran Dwayne Wade, the Heat trio is now known as "The Big Three." Some people even say Miami could challenge the record 72 regular season wins the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen-led Chicago Bulls achieved during the 1995-'96 season.
James says he is anxious to get back on the court for games that count. "It is an exciting time for everyone. I mean, we are looking forward to it. The NBA is back and the season will be in full swing."
Miami's strongest challengers in the NBA's Eastern Conference will be the Boston Celtics, last season's East winner, and the Orlando Magic, which won the conference the previous year.
Boston kept its own "Big Three" in aging veterans Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett who all are more than 32- years-old. The Celtics added 38-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, who has won previous NBA titles with the Lakers and the Heat.
The Lakers, led by superstar Kobe Bryant, are favored to take the Western Conference for a fourth straight season.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson says the team faces a difficult challenge. "There is a lot of hard work ahead and I think they know that. I think they have kind of measured it. They are anticipating that. But that daily or nightly pressure that every team is going to bring is something that really has to draw a lot of energy from them," he said.
Kobe Bryant has thrived on pressure throughout his stellar career. He will be aiming to exceed the five titles that Magic Johnson won with the Lakers and equal the six NBA titles Michael Jordan won with the Chicago Bulls. Bryant recently turned 32 and is coming off surgery on his right knee.
Bryant says he is ready. "Well, the whole season is all about ramping up. You come out of the gates playing great. You still want to continue to get better and better and better. You know, that is what it is about. The whole season is just a process. It is the evolution of a team and we are no different," he said.
The Lakers strongest challenge in the Western Conference is expected to come from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder is led by rising star Kevin Durant, who led the U.S. national basketball team to the World Championship last month in Turkey. The Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are also expected to be contenders.