LeBron James and the Miami Heat are setting their sights on a third straight NBA championship, trying to become just the fifth franchise in league history to accomplish the feat (the Lakers did it in Minneapolis and in Los Angeles). Of course, any discussion of the Heat must address the questions about James' supporting cast: Is Dwyane Wade healthy? How reliable is Chris Bosh? And this season the Heat will compete against a considerably more talented cadre of teams in the East: Chicago, with a healthy Derrick Rose; Indiana, with a healthy Danny Granger and another year of experience; the "upgraded" Brooklyn Nets; and Carmelo Anthony's New York Knicks.
With the season less than a week away, here are some of the key story-lines in the Eastern Conference.
1) Heat Three-Peat?
Miami signed former No. 1 pick Greg Oden in the hope that he can be a shot blocker against the Eastern Conference's elite bigs (assuming he can stay healthy). But perhaps the biggest question mark for the Heat is about the condition of Dwyane Wade's left knee. Wade battled through pain in the playoffs and was less than his normal self, averaging a career-worst 16 points. James can average 35 when he wants to, but he needs a healthy Wade to handle the perimeter scoring. That is, unless head coach Erik Spoelstra and company want to count on new addition Michael Beasley for more than he might be prepared to handle. With the league's new collective bargaining agreement, there is a strong possibility that team president Pat Riley will not be able to keep The Big Three intact after this season.
2) Is The Bloom Off The Rose?
Chicago's Derrick Rose is only 25 years old, but knee injuries are very scary, especially for players like Rose who rely on elite explosion and cutting. Signs point to a full recovery, which means Chicago is going to be an extremely tough out. Without Rose, the Bulls won a playoff series. Per ESPN, the team has won 85 percent of games in which Carlos Boozer, Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have played together. More importantly, they hold the league's best regular-season record against Miami (7-4) over the past three seasons.
3) The Forgotten Point Guard
With all of the great point guard play in the NBA, one could almost overlook John Wall. Yet in his return from a knee injury last season, the 23-year-old flashed a devastating first step and the finishing ability that helped make him the top overall pick in 2011. While he still hasn't found his range from distance, Wall is an improving pick-and-roll point guard with the athleticism and size to be a lockdown defender and premier rebounder. Washington should be one of the league's most improved teams this year, and Wall -- who averaged 19 points and 8 assists per game last season -- has the ability to push the team into a playoff bid.
4) Rookie of the Year?
Orlando swingman Victor Oladipo is as good a bet as anybody right now. This Swiss Army knife has all of the defensive tools to stay on the floor and guard great scorers, along with an improved jumper and the consistent ability to get into the lane. Through four preseason games, Oladipo is averaging a healthy 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and nearly 2 steals. He probably won't lead his rookie class in scoring, but the Magic should be able to build around Olapido, who is going to improve vastly in a short period of time.
5) Who Owns New York?
Carmelo Anthony says he wants to explore free agency next summer, but for the time being, he is still a Knick and this is still a 50-win team without a glimmer of hope as a contender. Assuming center Tyson Chandler is healthy, New York should be in a good position defensively at the rim -- but that doesn't account for the ineptitude of the two matadors, 'Melo and the recently acquired Andrea Bargnani. And resigned shooting guard J.R. Smith (three years, $18 million) did not have knee surgery, either. Philosophically this team is still heavily reliant on the three-pointer (last year's team broke all-time records in attempts and makes), even as it lost two of its best deep threats in Steve Novak and Chris Copeland. Knick fans have to hope that Amar'e Stoudemire can return to his 2007 form.
Meanwhile the populous borough of Brooklyn is hoping rookie head coach Jason Kidd can transform the Nets into a contender with the addition of veteran stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The best-case scenario is that Garnett's defensive prowess boosts Brook Lopez enough to give the Nets a premier front court. Then, with Pierce's scoring ability, the Nets can turn Deron Williams loose and allow Joe Johnson to be a third or even fourth option. But Williams has never been a pass-only point guard, and Lopez has never been an elite rebounder. The talent is certainly there on paper, but that hardly ever matters in this league.
For more NBA 2013, check out the Western Conference preview here.
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