Welcome Back, Basketball: Five NBA Stories To Watch

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Danny Moloshok / AP

Los Angeles Clippers starting line up, from left to right, Chauncey Billups, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and Caron Butler.

For a while there, we thought we wouldn’t be saying this, but: the 2011-2012 NBA season is ready to tip off. The 149-day lockout is all but forgotten, and the NBA returns with a five-game Christmas feast, starting with the New York Knicks against the Boston Celtics at noon EST, and capped off by the Los Angeles Clippers at the Golden State Warriors at 10:30 p.m. (with Miami vs. Dallas, Chicago vs. Los Angeles Lakers, and Orlando vs. Oklahoma City in between).

We asked Tony Ronzone, the respected international basketball super-scout, and former front office executive for the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves, to help us break down 5 must-see NBA storylines for the new season.

1. Calendar Crunch. The NBA will play a shortened 66-game season because of the lockout. That’s still a lot of basketball. But with the typical regular-season 82 games long, every game counts even more. Teams that get off to slow starts will have less time to recover. “It reminds me a little of the Europe, where every game, you can’t lose,” says Ronzone. “Lose two games, and getting to the playoffs becomes that much harder.” The schedule also included a multitude of back-to-back games for teams: the Lakers, for example, play four games in the first five days of the season. Weary legs mean more playing time for guys you’ve never heard of. “This season will be a clinic in how to manage minutes,” says Ronzone.

2. New Clip Ship. The NBA, owner of the New Orleans Hornets, approved a trade that sent All-Star Hornets point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he will team with an athletic freak, Clippers power forward Blake Griffin. Expectations for the morbid franchise are higher than ever. “’Showtime just went from purple and gold” – the Lakers – “to red and white,” says Ronzone. The Clippers will be an up-tempo team: the concern for the Clippers, Ronzone points out, is bench depth.

(MORE: The Cult of NBA Star Blake Griffin)

3. Heat Index. Ronzone expects the Heat to win the title. He’s far from alone. “They will definitely be better,” says Ronzone. “It will help that the media attention won’t be on them from day 1, like last year.” In a season with a tiring schedule, the young and hungry will survive. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are veteran players, but only Wade is pushing 30 (he turns 30 on January 12). The Heat, however, need help in the middle. Centers Joel Anthony and Eddy Curry – a colossal disappointment in his time with the New York Knicks – frighten no one.

(MORE: Long-term impact of the NBA Lockout)

4. Spur of the Moment. It’s easy to forget that the San Antonio Spurs, who were upset by the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of last year’s NBA playoffs, finished with the best regular season record in the Western Conference (61-21). Center Tim Duncan, now 35, is in the last year of his contract. Manu Ginobili will turn 35 this summer. “You get the sense this is the last year for the Spurs to muster something,” says Ronzone. “They seem to be saying, ‘OK, let’s give it all we can.’” A condensed schedule could hurt older teams – their legs tire out more than others. However, the shortened training camp may favor teams with an established chemistry, like San Antonio. And remember: in 1999, the last lockout-shortened season, the Spurs won it all.

5. Tricky Ricky. If you want to home in on one rookie this season, look north, to Minnesota, where Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio will finally make his debut. The Timberwolves drafted Rubio, 21, with the fifth overall pick in 2009. Rubio didn’t exactly jump at the chance to move from Spain to Minneapolis.  Ronzone recruited him hard, and finally helped convince Rubio to sign with the T’Wolves this summer. “He’s the kind of player you’re going to want to watch,” says Ronzone. “Players want to play with him. He makes guys around him better. He has that soccer mentality, where the assist is just as important as scoring the goal.” The floppy-haired point guard, who still looks like a teeny-bopper idol, has been a pro since the age of 14. Rubio will be teamed with another unselfish star, Timberwolves forward Kevin Love. Wow, two traditional bottom-feeders, the Clippers and the Timberwolves, are two of the more intriguing teams. The NBA can’t tip off fast enough.