A look at what the next eight months will bring:
• LeBron James' growing confidence. He led the Heat to his first NBA championship and the United States to his second Olympic gold medal. He's 27, he's peaking, and this promises to be his best season yet.
• The big (markets) get bigger. One of the causes of the 2011 lockout was the battle between owners in the small markets vs. the big markets. New York has added a second franchise and both are loaded with high-profile talent; the Clippers filled themselves out with charismatic experience and the Lakers more than overcame the nixing of the Chris Paul trade by landing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. If Derrick Rose were healthy, the five franchises from the three biggest markets would all be aiming to win 50 or more games this season. So good luck to Oklahoma City.
• Age over inexperience. As James launches his 10th season, he underlines the eternal NBA lesson of how difficult it is to win with youthful athleticism. The Heat, Lakers, Celtics and Knicks are all heavily experienced teams with crucial players who are, for the most part, leaning toward retirement. Again, good luck to Oklahoma City.
• David Stern's long farewell. For the next 15 months there will be much talk of who he is and what he has done while introducing fans to this important question: Who is Adam Silver?
[Ian Thomsen: Stern's enduring legacy]
• The countdown to LeBron's free agency.It has begun already and this time for good reason -- because James is now without argument the best player in the game, and if he opts out in 2014 the stakes will be higher than ever.
• MVP: LeBron James, Heat. He should feel possessive of this award, and no one else should be able to lay a hand on it for the next few years.
• Rookie of the Year:Anthony Davis, Hornets. No one has had a better head start: At 19, he has won an NCAA championship and an Olympic gold medal, and he is playing for a terrific coach in New Orleans' Monty Williams.
[The Point Forward: MVP race preview | Rookie of the Year]
• Coach of the Year:George Karl, Nuggets. He can't claim to have a traditional high-scoring superstar on his roster, but Karl's bullet-train Nuggets will be challenging the big names all season.
• Defensive Player of the Year:Dwight Howard, Lakers. It is going to be very difficult to score around the Lakers' basket this season.
• Most Improved Player:Kawhi Leonard, Spurs. A strong rookie season will serve as the foundation to a breakout year as the Spurs continue to reinvent themselves.
[Ben Golliver: Leonard an X-factor in Western Conference]
• Sixth Man Award:Jason Kidd, Knicks. If I'm right about the Knicks as a conference finalist this season, then no bench player will serve a more important role than Kidd. New York is depending on him to marry the games of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
• Executive of the Year:Mitch Kupchak, Lakers. Early voting should be enabled for this award.
This season the NBA has ended the requirement of including a center on each All-Star team, and I'm following that new format. The next step is to provide the option to list three guards when necessary. Dwyane Wade deserves to be among the top 15 players in what has become a backcourt-driven league, but there simply isn't enough room.
FIRST TEAMF LeBron JamesF Kevin DurantF Dwight HowardG Kobe BryantG Russell Westbrook
SECOND TEAMF Kevin LoveF Carmelo AnthonyF Andre IguodalaG Deron WilliamsG Steve Nash
THIRD TEAMF Josh SmithF Kevin GarnettF Blake GriffinG Chris PaulG Rajon Rondo
• Eric Gordon, Hornets: He wanted to sign with Phoenix, then came to camp in New Orleans with lingering knee issues. Will he win over Hornets fans?
• Andrew Bynum, 76ers: Must become the go-to guy in Philadelphia. He should put up numbers (health permitting), but will he lead his new team to an improved record?
• Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, Lakers and Knicks: At ages 38 and 39, respectively, they must pull together the richest teams in the league.
• Derrick Rose and Ricky Rubio, Bulls and Timberwolves: These two young point guards are aiming to return from ACL surgeries, and the success of their teams depends on them.
• Doc Rivers, Celtics coach: He is being asked to develop the future roster while maintaining the window of contention for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry.
• Ray Allen, Heat: He left the Celtics to sign with Boston's enemy, and now he must help the Heat win the championship while being heckled by his former team.
• The Spurs: They were dealt another frustrating playoff loss last season, but the NBA's most resilient franchise always come back for more.
• Vinny Del Negro, Clippers coach: He was responsible for the Clippers' second playoff series victory in 36 years -- and the rumors of his demise indicate that the organization is impatient with him to turn the team instantly into a title contender.
• Mark Cuban, Mavericks owner: He has earned the benefit of the doubt, but this season of continuing transition promises to be difficult for a franchise that expects excellence.
• Russell Westbrook, Thunder: No young star has improved more in a short time, and yet few stars are under more pressure. Instead of receiving credit for the meteoric rise of his team, Westbrook receives the blame when the Thunder fall short.
• Rob Hennigan: If the plan is to tear down and start over, then the new Orlando general manager must unload contracts swiftly while dealing with the aftermath of Dwight Howard's exit.
• Jeremy Lin: Can he fulfill the standards demanded by his new salary and last season's extraordinary performances?
[Enemy Lines: NBA scouts analyze all 30 teams]
Will these talents be available this season?
• Jose Calderon, Raptors: The acquisition of Kyle Lowry affirmed Toronto's intention to unload the expiring $10.6 million salary of their respected point guard.
• Josh Smith, Hawks:Joe Johnson was moved, and will Smith be the next to go?
• Carlos Boozer, Bulls: He's viewed as an amnesty candidate, and if Rose's return is stalled and the Bulls struggle, Boozer may be moved sooner than later.
• Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers: The complementary big man is guaranteed $21.4 million over the next three seasons and his defense could help a contender.
• Richard Jefferson, Warriors: If Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson turn out to be the future, where does that leave Jefferson with two years and $21.2 million on the books?
• Kevin Martin, Rockets: He's in the final year of his deal at $12.4 million.
• Steve Blake or Chris Duhon, Lakers: It would make sense for the Lakers to keep both of their backup point guards as insurance against injury, but they may be seeking to limit their luxury tax.
• James Harden, Thunder: If OKC is unable to sign him to an extension, will this young Olympian be moved preemptively? It's unlikely. But rivals are watching closely.
• Orlando Magic roster: This is a franchise of high ambition that needs to recover from the Howard fiasco as quickly as possible.
• Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers: If Portland is suffering, it would not be a surprise to find the Blazers seeking to move his expensive contract at the deadline.
• Tyreke Evans, Kings: The Kings haven't extended him, so will they move him?
• Paul Millsap, Jazz: Can Utah afford to keep all four of its big men (Millsap, Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter)? Rivals view Millsap as the one to be dealt.
They've set themselves apart from the rest of the league:
1. Heat: The favorite until proved otherwise.
2. Lakers: An L.A.-Miami Finals would be the NBA's best since the '80s.
3. Thunder: Their underdog status vs. the Lakers will help them.
[Matt Dollinger: Preseason Power Rankings]
1. Celtics: Three stars 35 or older.
2. Knicks: Carmelo Anthony must elevate to title contention in year 10 of his career.
3. Nets: They won't win the title, but they should compete with the Knicks.
4. Clippers: This team has complementary experience in depth.
5. Grizzlies: A new ownership group promises change across the board -- unless the current Grizzlies prove themselves worthy.
1. Thunder: Patience should be the ultimate virtue for this young franchise.
2. Nuggets: They'll be young and fun this year.
3. Hawks: Joe Johnson's departure promises more transition for Atlanta.
4. Raptors: Toronto is developing a solid foundation.
5. Jazz: Utah has the NBA's best young frontcourt.
6. Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love supply a promising foundation.
7. Hornets: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Monty Williams and Dell Demps -- New Orleans has youthful energy across the board.
1. Magic: The No. 1 pick should be the goal.
2. Bobcats: The No. 1 pick should be the goal.
3. Kings: The No. 1 pick will have to be the goal.
4. Rockets: Rockets may back into the No. 1 pick.
5. Trail Blazers: They don't want to hear it, but the Blazers will be in the running.