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East is loaded, but the Heat are still out front

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Heat preparing for another ring celebration
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FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2013, file photo, Miami Heat forward LeBron James goes for a dunk during the …

Boston stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett moved to Brooklyn, Derrick Rose recovered from his knee injury, Indiana gave Paul George a contract he richly deserved and a slew of teams think they're finally ready to contend for playoff spots.

No question, the East is loaded with talent.

And it's all going to be chasing Miami once again.

Including playoffs, the Heat won 78 percent of their games against Eastern Conference opponents last season - the third-best winning percentage any NBA team posted against its own half of the league in the last 16 years. The Heat won 39 of their final 45 matchups with East foes, on the way to capturing the conference title for the third straight year.

Those numbers pretty clearly show that the Heat dominated the East last year.

That being said, they were one defeat away from being eliminated by Indiana in the conference finals. More than anything else, that might give the 14 other clubs the East - some of them, anyway - evidence that the Heat aren't exactly infallible.

''Each and every night, to get up and play at your best, it can be challenging,'' said Reggie Miller, the Hall of Fame player who's now an analyst for TNT. ''And with those other teams getting better, it could be a long haul. But, look, as long as you have the best player on the planet, you can never really discount the Heat. And that's what they have. They always have the ultimate trump card in LeBron James.''

The Heat outscored East clubs by 562 points with James on the floor last season. How dominant is that? Dwyane Wade was No. 2 on that plus-minus list, 192 points behind the league's four-time MVP. James scored 1,653 points against East teams last season, one point less than New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony managed against the conference's teams. Anthony took 244 more shots, though.

''I feel like I have room to improve as a basketball player,'' James said.

Opponents didn't want to hear that.

Chicago getting Rose, a former MVP, back after his long recovery from a knee injury clearly makes the Bulls a championship hopeful again. The Pacers, who have an unquestioned budding star in George, said they would be empowered by taking Miami to the limit in last year's East finals. Brooklyn is clearly trying to win it all right now, and will pay an astronomical luxury tax with hopes that Pierce and Garnett have one more title run in them.

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Here's five things to watch from the Eastern Conference in 2013-14:

HEAT CHECK: All eyes will be on Miami, again. The Heat wouldn't have it any other way. Losing Mike Miller through amnesty was a blow, though it was one everyone involved with the team understood was necessary given the financial realities in this luxury-tax world. But there's still oodles of depth, and if Greg Oden continues his long - really long - recovery from knee problems, this might be Miami's best team yet. James is always driven, and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh say they're as hungry as they've ever been.

NEW YORK, OLD YORK: The Knicks have to be feeling somewhat slighted by suggestions that their window as a contender has closed. Then again, they very easily might not be the best team in their own city. Brooklyn is just loaded, with Pierce and Garnett being added to a mix that already included Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Pierce and Garnett are clearly into the final chapters of their careers - but if healthy, believe that no one will want to see them coming in the first round.

CENTRAL BATTLES: Indiana and Chicago could very easily wage one of the best divisional races in the NBA this season. Of course, divisional titles don't really mean a thing anymore, but the back and forth between the Pacers and Bulls - especially with Rose back - might be really fun to watch. It would not be a shock if this was a second-round matchup.

UP AND COMERS: Watch out for Detroit, Toronto and Washington. Maybe none of those clubs is ready to really make a serious run at an NBA title this season, but all could find themselves in the playoff mix. Washington might really be the one to watch. The Wizards started 4-28, and finished the year on a six-game losing streak. In between, they went 25-19, the fifth-best record in the East from early January through early April.

NEW FACES: There's five first-time head coaches in the East and one of them has a title contender. Jason Kidd got the reins in Brooklyn, and if he's wise, he'll be leaning a lot on assistant Lawrence Frank, who's probably an underrated tactician. Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta), Brad Stevens (Boston), Steve Clifford (Charlotte) and Brett Brown (Philadelphia) are the other East first-timers. Other sideline bosses in new roles are Mike Brown (back for a second stint in Cleveland), Larry Drew (from Atlanta to Milwaukee) and Maurice Cheeks (Detroit).

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