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With the NBA season beginning tonight, Buffalo News basketball writers Jerry Sullivan, Allen Wilson and Rodney McKissic look to convert the three-point play with three questions


First, the world champion Boston Celtics have not repeated as NBA kings since 1968-'69. Is this the year they do it again? Second, can the Los Angeles Lakers get out of the rugged Western Conference? And third, is Kobe Bryant the best player in the league?

Kobe and LeBron are key factors

1. Will the Celtics repeat?

Sully: No. I don't expect the Celts to play with the same purpose and intensity this year, especially on defense. I think they'll miss James Posey's versatility and leadership. Pierce and Allen will start to show their age, and I'm still not sold on Rondo at point guard. The Cavs are poised to make a run back to the Eastern finals. LeBron James is ready for a career year, which is a scary prospect. James will finally have a true point guard in Mo Williams, who can create and allow James to play more off the ball.

Big Al: Garnett, Pierce and Allen have to stay healthy. Keeping them on the court is paramount to holding off the improved the Cavs, who are the only other legitimate title contender in the East. I don't buy the Celtics will be less hungry. I think trying to defend their crown will give them extra motivation. If the Celtics get out of the East in one piece, they might have enough to beat whoever comes out of the West.

Rock: When a veteran team finally breaks through a wins a championship, the hunger seems to dissipate by the next season and the same thing will happen with the Celtics. The 1983 Philadelphia 76ers had the best team I've seen over the last 30 years but they were eliminated in the first rod of the playoff the next season. Philadelphia, with the addition of Elton Brand, figures to challenge the Boston as will Cleveland and Atlanta now that it has Mike Bibby for a full season.

2. Who is the best in the West?

Sully: I like Houston. The Rockets had the best record in the NBA after Jan. 1 last season. They added Ron Artest, who provides an element any title team needs: The ability to shut down top mid-sized scorers. Artest is a knucklehead, but he's in a contract year and loves playing for Rick Adelman. Artest, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady give Houston the top trio in the league. Brent Barry adds a veteran presence who can make the timely three-pointer. And they have the ultimate team player in Shane Battier.

Big Al: I've told you guys about drinking and writing at the same time! It's obvious that the Lakers are the team to beat again. They reached the Finals without young center Andrew Bynum, who has the potential to be a dominant force. He also gives the Lakers more toughness inside, which they lacked against the Celtics, and he'll take some of the scoring and rebounding burden off Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. It would have been nice if the Lakers swung a deal to get Artest, but they should be strong again. The Hornets are a scary team with Paul and company, but Kobe will be the driving force behind another trip to the Finals.

Rock: If the New Orleans Hornets can stay healthy, they have to be considered the team to beat in the West. The Lakers remain formidable but I'm not convinced Kobe Bryant's supporting cast is good enough to hold off Chris Paul and the Hornets for another season. Signing James Posey away from Boston gives them a championship presence they lacked a year ago. Adding Posey with young stars Paul, David West, and Tyson Chandler will be enough for New Orleans to advance to the Finals.

3. Who is the best player in the league?

Sully: LeBron James is the guy. If Kobe is so great, how come he couldn't get past the Celtics with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom alongside? Did you catch that crew that LeBron tried to carry past the Celts in the playoffs? He's a better team player than Kobe. He proved it in the Olympics. LeBron deferred to the other great players and accepted an all-around role, which made the U.S. team click. The thing is, he's still getting better. With Mo Williams on hand, I look for LeBron's shooting percentages to go up this year. The Cavs will win 53-55 games and LeBron will win his first MVP award.

Big Al: It's still Kobe Bryant, though LeBron James has closed the gap considerably. James is a physical freak at 6-8, 240 with point guard skills. But no one is better than Kobe as far as getting it done on both ends of the floor. He's the most feared scorer in the league, and he's also the game's best perimeter defender. The only other guy who could make that claim was a guy named Michael Jordan. Of all the clutch shooters around, I still want the ball in Kobe's hands with the game on the line. Kobe didn't play well in the NBA Finals, but his supporting cast was soft and that series just proved that having three superstars is better than one.

Rock: Because he's been injured the last two seasons, people forget how good Dwyane Wade really is. During the Olympics this past summer, Wade was the team's leading scorer and shot nearly 70 percent from the floor. Hopefully the addition of rookie Mario Chalmers means Wade will relinquish his duties at point guard and if he stays healthy, he could lead the league in scoring.

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