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NBA burning questions: Three-peats, comebacks and more

Photo: Greg Nelson/SI

Can Kevin Durant and the Thunder squelch LeBron James and the Heat's three-peat hopes in '13-14?

We won't get the answers to these questions until next spring, but we can still ask. Here's five burning questions heading into the 2013-14 NBA season:

1. Will the Heat three-peat?

If Dwyane Wade reverses a two-year trend of knee issues, then of course the Heat can survive another title run -- with survival being the key term. Miami is seeking a fourth straight NBA Finals, a goal last achieved by Larry Bird's Celtics of 1984-87. The assignment of playing into June will be tougher than ever for the Heat as all of their top rivals in the East -- the Bulls, Pacers and Nets -- have improved, while the Knicks lurk close behind thanks to Carmelo Anthony.

The Heat's path to the Finals is going to be difficult under any circumstances. They needed seven games last spring to overcome the enormous presence of Indiana's Roy Hibbert, who figures to have even more room inside if Danny Granger can stay healthy. The Nets' rotation will be filled with a half-dozen familiar All-Star faces, and even if they prove to be too old, they'll still create problems for Miami around the basket and out to the three-point line. The Bulls also have a physical front line to service the return of Derrick Rose, who intends to make good on his promise to be better than ever. Still, the guess here is that Miami will survive its East rivals, barely.

But then it really gets hard.

The West is certain to produce a legitimate contender. The most threatening team at first glance appears to be the Clippers, who look like the favorite to earn the top seed in the conference. But in the latter rounds it's going to be asking too much for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to emerge as the Nos. 2 and 3 leaders of a championship team. Consider the standard that will be expected of 24-year-old Griffin, who -- like team leader Chris Paul -- has never played beyond the second round. The list of No. 2 stars from recent championship teams includes Wade, Pau Gasol, Paul Pierce and Manu Ginobili. Can Griffin achieve that level of discipline and production in one year under coach Doc Rivers?

SI.com's 2013-14 NBA preview hub | Team-by-team analysis

The Rockets and Warriors also look as if they'll need another meaningful year of playoff experience. The Spurs can return to the NBA Finals if everything breaks right, in the same way that it broke last year after Russell Westbrook's postseason knee injury eliminated the top-seeded Thunder in the second round. If the Thunder are healthy over the second half, however, this could be their breakthrough year.

Durant and Westbrook -- the best duo in the NBA -- will have the necessary experience and hunger to overcome the Clippers and Spurs, and they'll have the right blend of athleticism and depth to take advantage of Miami's fatigue.

Oklahoma City will put an end to Miami's three-peat hopes and the rest of the league will be left worrying how to stop the Thunder's sustainable young roster built to operate beneath the threshold of the luxury tax.

2. Will Brooklyn make good on its $189 million investment?

That's how much Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is investing in this year's roster between his league-leading payroll plus $89 million in luxury taxes. It's as if he's trying to compete with the Yankees rather than the Heat.

The short answer is that the Nets are not built to win the championship, and that's too bad. It would be a tremendous story if their charismatic stars could rally together to beat the younger contenders. But there are too many younger teams better suited to withstand the long NBA schedule.

The Nets may seek inspiration from San Antonio, but the Spurs have remained relevant because they've worked in young athletic legs around Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili while Tony Parker has continued to push the tempo as often as possible. These Nets are not built to exude energy. They've surrounded Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, all 36 or older. Their youngest superstar, 29-year-old Deron Williams, has been slowed by physical setbacks for a couple of years now.

DOLLINGER: Nets in top 10 of preseason Power Rankings

They have little speed apart from Andrei Kirilenko, who has had problems staying healthy, missing 151 games over his last eight NBA seasons. Those who say the Nets have the depth to pace themselves through the regular season are being romantic. They're still going to be old at the end of the season, and their age is going to leave them vulnerable.

3. Which star will make the greatest comeback?

This is easy. Derrick Rose has raised his own expectations by predicting he will be more explosive and productive in all areas, and he is not the bragging type. You can expect him to make good on those promises.

This is shaping up to be a provocative year for Chicago, between persistent reports of coach Tom Thibodeau's frustrations, the constructive demands he makes of his players and the failure of negotiations for a Luol Deng contract extension. Rose has the ability to keep everyone focused on the team's objective by making the game easier for everyone on both ends. That gives the Bulls credible hope of upsetting Miami.

The other star likely to come back in a big way wears No. 24 and plays in Los Angeles (see below).

4. How will the draft and free agency shake out?

The latter half of that question revolves around James, and we won't know the answer until the postseason plays itself out.

If the Heat three-peat, Wade renews a level of healthy production and owner Micky Arison is willing to pay the repeater tax, then why would James leave Miami? At the very least he could postpone his decision to opt out in order to stay another year. If the roster breaks down, however, or if the prospect for future championships grows dim, then James cannot afford to stick around -- because a player who wants to be the greatest ever needs to max out these peak years of his prime by continuing to win championships.

The No. 2 free agent figures to be Carmelo Anthony, and the top-rated destination has been cited as the Lakers. But that's not likely to happen so long as their coach is Mike D'Antoni, based on the fallout of D'Antoni's frustrated partnership with Anthony in New York. More important is the business end of the deal: Why would Anthony leave the NBA's No. 1 market in order to make less money while serving as the No. 2 star behind Bryant?

MAHONEY: Examining potential free agent suitors for Carmelo Anthony in 2014

Wade and Chris Bosh could opt out this summer too, as could Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Bryant will be free agents who won't be seeking to leave. Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Danny Granger could turn out to be among the top unrestricted free agents if the Heat and Knicks remain intact.

As for the draft: Isn't all of the hype unfair to consensus No. 1 favorite Andrew Wiggins? He isn't going to complain about the talk that he is a franchise-changing star, but he may protest after his new NBA team expects him to become the next Durant. Wiggins should be allowed to establish his own level -- he will be excellent, and some team will be happy to have him. Maybe not as happy as the Thunder have been with Durant, but happy all the same.

5. Will the Lakers implode?

If so, it will begin at the epicenter of ownership, where Jeannie and Jim Buss clearly have not agreed over who should be coaching the team they inherited from their father. The question is whether D'Antoni can survive the year, and the guess here is that he will: This team is going to be the Pacific version of the 2010-11 Knicks, who got off to a strong start and built up the value of their role players high enough to enable a trade for Anthony at the deadline. A bunch of shooters will surround the playmaking Gasol, with Nash (in spite of limited minutes) joining with Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar to play in the flow. And then Kobe Bryant will join them, and with him the Lakers will return to the playoffs as D'Antoni earns consideration for coach of the year. To pick the Lakers to make the playoffs is to express faith in Bryant. His career has earned him that much.

Mannix's NBA Fast Breaks: L.A. Lakers
Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix previews the 2013-2014 season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

JENKINS: Kobe Bryant: Reflections on a cold-blooded career

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