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Framing up a new season

Opinion:  Intriguing questions surround Celts, Mavs, Spurs, Cavs, and Heat

The Celtics are again relevant and watching their season unfold is just one of the most interesting things in the NBA. Others include the Mavs' attempt to not only erase the nightmare of last spring, but to also finally win a championship. Then there's the Spurs' attempt at repeating, the Cavs laying it all on LeBron, and whether the Heat will wilt under Pat Riley's fire.

My top things to watch this season:

Green aim to reignComing off the second-worst record in the league last season, the Celtics will attempt one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history as they have their sights set on winning the Eastern Conference. They can think that big because over the summer Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Beantown and along with Paul Pierce that's one talented trio.

One thing that might keep Boston from taking the East is a very thin bench. Even calling the Celtics' reserves mediocre might be stretching it a bit. Depth is lacking all over, but especially in the middle. Limited production is expected from starting center Kendrick Perkins and behind him is Scot Pollard, whose inability to stay healthy has led to him not playing anywhere near a full season since 2001-02. One bright spot could be guard Tony Allen, who looked to be having a breakout year last season before tearing up his knee.

Besides suffocating defense, Garnett's good for 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. He'll bring the kind of intensity and leadership not seen in Boston since Larry Bird suited up. Some are predicating it's all downhill from here for Allen since he's now 32. Stop that talk. In Allen's last couple of seasons he has put up the two best scoring averages of his career -- including a career-best 26.4 points per game last season. Allen can make shots. He is still one of the best perimeter scorers in the league and he's clutch in big spots.

The East is a very even conference. With good health and some good fortune, the Celtics could come out of it just as convincingly as any of the other top teams. Detroit with the greatest amount of experience and the best balance is the team to beat in the East. The Pistons were swept by Cleveland in the playoffs so they are highly motivated to make amends. But also highly motivated are three guys who have never won an NBA title. Their names are Garnett, Allen, and Pierce.  

Has Dallas learned its lessonAfter winning 67 games and securing the top seed for the playoffs what happens to Dallas in the first round against Golden State? Well, unless you've spent some serious time under a huge rock you know of the Mavs' epic collapse, done in by the Warriors as even one of the league's top players, Dirk Nowitzki, flamed out. What  must be watched is how heavy the baggage from that failure will be on the shoulders of the Mavs this season.

The response owner Mark Cuban is looking for is an NBA title. But in order to win a championship a team has to learn why it lost a championship. Two years ago the Mavs were up 2-0 on the Heat in the Finals but lost in six games. Dallas chalked that up to inexperience in the championship round. Last year's flop against Golden State was explained as meeting up with a difficult opponent that was red hot. Wrong on both counts. Dallas allowed Miami to slow down the pace of the games and make them more physical and against the Warriors the Mavs let a small team dictate to a bigger, more versatile team how the games were going to be played.

Dallas has the talent to win a championship. The Mavs say all the right things and they are motivated because of what's happened to them in the last two postseasons. But unless they have learned from their past mistakes they won't become champions. Dallas has to demonstrate it has gotten smarter through the adversity it has run into in the playoffs. That's what many are waiting to see. 

Avery Johnson has had great regular-season success coaching the Mavs, but he's 2-8 in his last 10 postseason games. Johnson has been outmaneuvered in the playoffs, first by Pat Riley and then by Don Nelson. He must find a way to keep his team steady in the spring. In the postseason Dallas has shown it can become tentative and passive in tight games. It has to be able to play looser and more aggressive at crunch time, otherwise it again goes home in April or May instead of in June.

Spurred to two in a row   The prime motivation of the Spurs this season is to repeat as NBA champions. They have failed to do that after winning the title in 1999, 2003, and 2005. In order to be considered in a group with the great Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls teams San Antonio must go back-to-back.

For this team the regular season is not about how many games it can and it's not about finishing first in the Southwest Division. It's about getting to the playoffs healthy. The NBA's model franchise led by a terrific trio in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili can't be nicked up when it's Showtime.

The championship teams of 1999, 2003, and 2005 all had a good shot at repeating but didn't get the job done. In 2006 when San Antonio lost in the playoffs to Dallas it had a tough time controlling the tempo of the games and that gave the Mavericks confidence they could play with the Spurs and beat them. San Antonio can't make the same mistake twice if it is to win a second straight championship.

Come the spring the collective mindset of the Spurs should be that they are going into each playoff series looking to hammer the opposition and put doubt in the minds of their opponents right from the opening tip of Game 1. By its play San Antonio has to be telling its potential conquerors that it is the champion and these are the playoffs and there is no way any team facing the Spurs makes it past them. Along with being healthy mental toughness is most important for San Antonio in its quest to repeat.

Help wanted in Cleveland Last season the Cavs got to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. It was a great run and the way they got so far made for a great story. But when playing for the NBA title Cleveland's major weakness -- a lack of outside shooting -- was exposed. So what did management do in the offseason to address this weakness: nothing, that's what.

So this team is made up of one great player and a bunch of very good role players. That great player, LeBron James, needs more help. And the area he needs it the most in is the perimeter game. Cleveland's answer to that was to make one addition, Devin Brown, a former NBA Developmental League MVP. That's not going to get the Cavs to punch a ticket back to the NBA Finals.

To make matters worse James may not even how the help he had a year ago. That's because of contract disputes between management and Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao. Pavlovic, a restricted free agent,  finally ended his contract holdout on Oct. 30 by agreeing to terms on a three-year deal, but Varejao, also a restricted free agent, remains away from the team as he seeks a $9 million per year contract.

Cavs coach Mike Brown did a great job last season in getting his team to believe it could go further in the postseason than it had ever gone before. But no matter how well he preaches this season with other teams having improved and Cleveland having sat on its hands the Cavs will have a harder time getting to June.

Riley still applying the heatThe key question with the Heat is how far can Pat Riley push Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and their supporting cast? Miami is not a young team. The Heat are long in the tooth and that makes them fragile. Shaquille O'Neal is in his 16th NBA season, Alonzo Mourning his 15th, and Jason Williams his ninth. O'Neal is said to have worked hard on his fitness over the summer, but all of his key statistics slipped last season. He'll turn 36 before the playoffs begin, and while still an above-average center, his best days are behind him.

Don't expect a fast start out of Wade as he is coming off major shoulder surgery in May. On the same day doctors operated on his shoulder they also performed minor surgery on his knee. Wade will need to pace his preparation for the season as he continues to heal and move towards being fully healthy again.

Riley finally had enough of Antoine Walker and his conditioning issues in the preseason, shipping him off to Minnesota for Ricky Davis. That adds a proven scorer to an aging lineup, but with Davis could very well come fireworks, and not the kind that light up the sky at night. Davis has a very emotional, uncontrollable personality. He can pass, score, rebound, and defend, but a coach never knows when he will do all those things in the same game. Davis is a player no coach -- not even Riley -- can get his arms around.

Riley is concentrating on a mental makeover and that's fine since the Heat need to be much hungrier than they were last season. But while Miami may be able to change its attitude, it doesn't have enough talent to come out of the East. The Heat are not at the level of Detroit, which still has the pieces in place to make another run at capturing the conference. Along with the Pistons, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and possibly a few other teams can't be overlooked as top contenders in the East.