By Mark Dourmashkin, Staff Writer

As another season starts, the Miami Heat are the favorites once again to win the NBA championship. The Heat did not make any big moves during the offseason, but gambled by signing Greg Oden.

After not playing in a game since 2009 because of undergoing multiple surgeries on his knees, it is a surprise that Oden is even standing at this point. However, if the former College All-American can prove he is healthy, the Miami Heat may get even stronger if that was even possible. The Heat also signed the former second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Michael Beasley, hoping to turn his career around and add a spark off the beach. With all this being said, repeating as NBA champions will not be as easy as last year.

The Indiana Pacers will be Miami’s toughest challenge to get back to the NBA Finals. Their defensive, tough-nose style of play created havoc for the Miami Heat during their playoff series. The Pacers pushed the Heat to a Game 7, and with a healthy Danny Granger, who average 25 points per game three seasons ago, the Heat cannot afford to overlook the up-and-coming Pacers.

Six months ago, the new coach of the Brooklyn Nets was just finishing up beating two of his players in a playoff series. The coach, Jason Kidd, now has to adjust to coaching two of his former rivals in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Brooklyn Nets pulled a page out of the Miami Heat’s playbook by putting together a cast of all-stars. Their elite starting lineup will be able to compete, but can Jason Kidd coach?

The dark horse in the Eastern Conference has to be the Chicago Bulls. If Derrick Rose can return to MVP form, the Bulls have the right personnel to compete at the top of the East. I think the New York Knicks will have a hard time winning 54 games again and making it to the second round of the playoffs. They have an old roster and have not found a winning formula with Anthony and Stoudemire. If New York Knick fans are looking to the Metta World Peace as missing piece to contend for a championship, good luck. The rest of the teams in the East will not be competitive and struggle to maintain a winning record.

The Western Conference is wide open this year. The Lakers, who are usually the favorites, will be without Kobe Bryant to start the season and possibly longer. The Oklahoma City Thunder will throw Russell Westbrook right back into the fire after quickly recovering from knee surgery. If he gets hurt again, the Thunder cannot win without him as they showed in their playoff series versus the Memphis Grizzles.

The top two teams in the West will be the Clippers and Spurs. The Clippers no longer have to worry about even being the best team in Los Angeles. They are. With the ex-Celtic coach Doc Rivers, giving out orders to CP3 and the rest of the team, the Clippers will challenge to overthrow the San Antonio Spurs as the Western Conference Champs. Everyone knows you cannot count the Spurs out as they continuously go beyond expectations year after year. With Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all a year older, making a long playoff run will be difficult.

The Memphis Grizzles, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors round up the other potential contenders in the West. The Grizzles are a solid defensive team but lack a star to take control late in close games. Unless they make a trade, don’t expect to see the Grizzles making any major strides in the West. The Rockets and Warriors both major splashes to their teams during the off-season. The Rockets, added Dwight Howard while the Golden State Warriors traded Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry for Andre Iguodala. Both players are overrated and will not help their respective teams advance in the Western Conference.

The Miami Heat will not repeat as NBA Championships. Wade’s health is providing to be a bigger factor than it was in the past. LeBron will be LeBron, but as we saw in Cleveland, he can’t win by himself. The Pacers are the most complete team in the NBA and have an emerging star in Paul George. They will win the East and face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook will remain unstoppable and I think Kevin Durant is really getting tired of getting second place in the MVP race. Durant will have his best year yet as a player and his Thunder will defeat the Pacers in the NBA Finals.

Senior Mark Dourmashkin is a staff writer. His email is