Cohesiveness, fitness favors Heat in 2011-12

Orlando Magic guard Quentin Richardson (C) goes around Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh (L) as he defends forward LeBron James (R) during the second half of their NBA basketball game in Orlando, Dec 21, 2011.

The starter's gun sounds Christmas Day on an National Basketball Association (NBA) sprint of a season that will reward cohesiveness and fitness in a compressed 66-game campaign that has the Miami Heat as clear front-runners.

Miami's 'Big Three' of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together as free agents last year and the nucleus made it to the NBA Finals before falling to the Dallas Mavericks.

After one season to work out the kinks, the Heat look ready to show they really have a hold on a league that used a five-month lockout of players to get a labor agreement that gave owners a bigger share of revenues and reshaped rules toward improving competitive balance.

James, who shied away from crunch-time responsibilities in the Finals, showed his commitment to claiming a maiden title by making an off-season pilgrimage to Houston for a tutorial on post moves from Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.

In preparation for the season's Dec. 25 start, teams held hurry-up training camps that coincided with a frenzied free-agent signing period that produced winners and losers.

The Heat index shot up, the Mavericks lost some firepower and the lowly Los Angeles Clippers created an instant rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant by adding premier point guard Chris Paul and other pieces.

Miami improved by adding sweet-shooting small forward Shane Battier, while Dallas may have taken a step back after losing center Tyson Chandler (New York Knicks), forward Caron Butler (Clippers) and back-up guard J.J. Barea (Minnesota Timberwolves) despite welcoming two-times NBA champion Lamar Odom to Texas.

A disgruntled Odom was ultimately traded by the Lakers, who had included the versatile forward in a trade offer to league-owned New Orleans for Paul, which was nixed by the NBA.

The Chicago Bulls, who reached the Eastern Conference final against Miami, added a potentially key piece in shooting guard Richard Hamilton, who could provide just the complement to point guard Derrick Rose, the NBA's reigning most valuable player.

While the impact of provisions on competitive balance is yet to be seen, the season figures to be ruled by teams that already know how to play together and can withstand the rigors of a schedule that includes three games in three days for all teams and stretches for some of five games in six nights.

Veteran-laden teams like the Boston Celtics, with their aging impact trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, could start fast but may wear down come playoff time.

The San Antonio Spurs could be in the same boat as Boston, ready to hit the hardcourt smoothly with a veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, but eventually challenged to keep step with last year's Western Conference runners-up the Oklahoma City Thunder.