Chris Paul and the LA Clippers appear to be the team to beat in the Western Conference. (Gus Ruelas/AP)

Henry Abbott thinks Chris Paul and the LA Clippers are the team to beat out West. (Gus Ruelas/AP)

The Miami Heat’s title defense begins Tuesday with the opening of the NBA regular season. It’s up to the NBA’s 29 other franchises to keep the Heat from becoming the first three-peat champ in the NBA since the 2002 Lakers. Henry Abbott from ESPN’s True Hoop joined Bill to discuss the upcoming season.

BL: A handful of NBA stars found new homes over the offseason. As a result, which are the most improved teams?

HA: Well, the Houston Rockets won the big prize in Dwight Howard. They move from “also rans” who make the playoffs to real-deal contenders. The Chicago Bulls improved mildly simply by getting Derrick Rose healthy again. They were contenders until he missed almost all of the season last year, so they’re there. And the Brooklyn Nets have not mattered much in a long time, but they got basically all the stars from the Boston Celtics so there’s a lot of enthusiasm around them.

BL: Like other professional sports leagues, the NBA awards higher draft picks to teams that finish lower in the standings, causing some teams to actually compete for last place. Why is this issue particularly relevant to the NBA this season?

HA: What’s different in the NBA is a good draft pick is so incredibly valuable; one player can turn your franchise around. So this draft includes Andrew Wiggins and several other prospects believed to be the best in a decade. So not coincidentally this is the year the Boston Celtics traded away all their good players. It’s hard if you are a fan of one of those cities to know that your front office probably isn’t doing everything they can to win games every night.

BL: I’m thinking of the marketing campaign in one of those cities: “Come see us, we’re no good, but we’ll be better in a couple of years.”

HA: Right, right, even worse is they often have a tremendous amount of roster turmoil, so they won’t put a player on the cover of the media guide, these teams that are rebuilding — that’s what they call it, “rebuilding,” right, when they really mean, “tanking.” So I’ve actually seen it where they have campaigns where they have a shot of a timeout, but it’s cropped so all the players heads are removed, and you can’t even tell who’s in the ad just in case they’ve traded those guys by the time it makes it into print.

BL: Well it’s either that or you put a landmark from your city on the media guide. You know you can always do that.

HA: If you’re the star of a team that has a landmark on the media guide, you know you’re in trouble, right.

BL: The Los Angeles Clippers acquired head coach Doc Rivers during the offseason. Are they officially the top team in L.A. now?

HA: By a country mile. The Lakers are going to be last in the West this year and I personally think the Clippers are the favorites to win the West. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA. It’s not close.

BL: David Stern’s time as commissioner is almost up. He will step down on Feb. 1 after 30 years at the helm. How would you characterize his stewardship of the league and will his replacement have a hard time following Stern’s act? 

HA: So the safe and conventional answer is that Stern is a pioneer of global marketing of the game and that has made the game very much stronger economically, and it’s a big force, and that’s all true. To my eyes though, Stern’s most special quality is that he’s a bully and is very helpful, for instance, in the CBA negotiations — the collective bargainings with the union.

He had to get 17 of the 30 NBA owners to go along with his plan, and he didn’t get all 17 by being friendly, right? These are billionaires you’re wrangling here, and that’s a special talent he really has. His replacement will be Adam Silver. He’ll lead in a different way though. I don’t think he’ll be much of a bully. I think he’ll have to get his 17 votes by impressing upon those owners what a wise choice it is instead of bamboozling them with backroom Chicago-style politics.