NBA: Can anyone handle the Heat?

There is no shortage of contenders lining up to block the Miami Heat's bid for a third straight NBA title, but can any of them stop LeBron James?

LeBron James

A little over three years on from the summer the Heat signed James and brought back Dwyane Wade, their roster is as loaded as ever.

All eyes remain on that leading pair, though, given they have not always co-existed easily - and now they are going into the final season before they can opt out of their contracts.

After three years of infighting and intrigue - and glittering success - can they ignore the obvious distractions speculation over their future will bring as they face up to a crowded field trying to block their path in the Eastern Conference?

Chief among them should be the Chicago Bulls, lifted back into the elite bracket with the return to action of Derrick Rose alongside Luol Deng, Joakim Noah et al.

The 2011 MVP is back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and his performances in the pre-season suggest he is ready to pick up where he left off as he amassed averages of 20.7 points and five assists.

"I bet I surprised a lot of people, but at the same time, I know how hard I worked in the off-season just to get back on the court," Rose told the Chicago Sun-Times.

"My hard work is paying off.

"I'm not in my groove yet, but I'm still able to go out there and control the game a little bit. I guess when I get back in my groove, it's going to be scary."

The next name on people's lips in the East is Indiana, where Danny Granger should be back to full health and the veteran newcomer Luis Scola can help the development of highly-rated youngsters Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson.

Brooklyn had the fourth best record in the East last season but that only seems to have persuaded owner Mikhail Prokhorov that it was time to spend big and push for more.

The high-price acquisitions are led by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce - two men who played this particular game with the Boston Celtics in 2008 - but whether the ageing stars have enough left in the tank will be the key to Brooklyn's hopes: this is a team built to win now, and the clock will be ticking.

Over in the West, the San Antonio Spurs are still licking their wounds from last year's Finals loss to Miami, but this ageing squad have no time to feel sorry for themselves with young rivals circling.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have made moves to surround Kevin Durant with the pieces they need to go all the way.

Injury has kept Russell Westbrook out of the pre-season and his continued absence will slow the Thunder's start, but once he returns and the likes of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb work out how to fill the hole left by Kevin Martin, they should pick up speed through the season.

The Houston Rockets - pairing Dwight Howard and James Harden - and the Los Angeles Clippers, building around Blake Griffin, are almost ready to put themselves in the mix, but this looks like being a year too soon.



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