The NBA season is finally set to begin in five short days and it is already looking to be one filled with subplots and storylines galore (Will Chris Paul make the LA Clippers contenders? How will Tyson Chandler fit in with the New York Knicks? Has the Boston Celtics window of opportunity closed or do they have another run left in them? Will Dwight Howard be traded?).
However, one game on opening day has enough storylines to keep fans busy for days: the Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks.
The Dallas Mavericks ousted the Miami Heat in last season's NBA Finals. The Miami Heat have said that it was a crushing defeat and that they want to prove that they are a different team than the one that struggled to hold leads last year. What better opportunity to show their improvement than to take on the team that handed them six total losses last season?
In fact, the Heat have not won a regular season game against the Mavericks in almost seven years.
The NBA Finals rematch is sure to be an emotional contest for both teams. Here are the top 10 storylines to watch as they square off on Christmas Day.
The Heat say that they are playing this season on a mission. They want to make amends for their NBA Finals loss last season by returning to the finals this June and winning it all.
They could not have more powerful incentive to illustrate this desire than on opening night, though, as they will receive a front-row seat to the Dallas Mavericks' ring ceremony.
The Heat will watch the banner be lifted, David Stern individually handing each player his championship ring, Jason Terry's championship trophy tattoo pulsating in the darkness and a Jumbotron depicting shots of the Heat frustrated and missing shots while Dirk and company hit shots and celebrate afterwards.
Perhaps they'll even play Mark Cuban's "we ain't done yet!" proclamation before the Finals for good measure.
It will be an especially tough environment for the Heat to be in to start the season. It'll be curious to see if there is any visual reaction from Miami during the ceremony: Will they avert their eyes, will they stand there pensive but quietly seething?
If ever there was a time to have a body language expert on hand, this would be the one.
All eyes will be on LeBron James in this game. The Dallas Mavericks' zone defense really turned one of the game's premier players into a mere spectator for much of the NBA Finals. They cut off his driving lanes, forced him to take jump shots—many of which did not go in—and really exposed his need to develop a stronger post game.
It is expected that the Mavericks are going to challenge James early to see just how much he has improved in the offseason. They will probably clog the paint and keep him on the perimeter. James has to make them pay.
If James is able to break the zone, either by posting up, making jumpers or creating open shot opportunities for his teammates, it will go along way toward silencing some of his critics.However, if James struggles again against the zone, expect a deluge of negative press and criticism after the game.
I foresee the headline, "The Mavericks still own LeBron," appearing a day later.
The Miami Heat are the favorites to return to the Finals this season, but there is one big question that needs to be answered before the Heat can defend their conference title: What to do about the center position?
Miami had a problem with the center position last season, but at least they had big bodies to throw out there. Jamaal Magloire, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas weren't much, but they provided different looks for opposing front lines.
This center-by-committee approach proved effective in plugging a temporary hole in the Heat's ship.
However, the center problem appears to be more serious this season. In a perfect world, Dexter Pittman would be the de facto starting center for the Miami Heat. He's 6'11", has a decent touch around the basket, plays good defense and offers the Heat much needed size in the paint.
But Pittman is still not yet in game shape, nor has he improved significantly enough to play starter minutes. Add in the fact that he is still too foul-prone and you can see why the Heat are still shopping for a center.
Then there is Eddie Curry, who is also not quite in game shape. Curry is expected to be the starter, although exactly what he will be able to provide this season is still very much in doubt. Joel Anthony will probably get the bulk of the minutes at center. He is hard-working and a solid shot-blocker, but he is undersized at 6'9" and has no offensive game to speak of.
There is a chance that Udonis Haslem will spend some time at the 5 spot, but he is a natural power forward.
It will be interesting to see what the Heat's center rotation is in this game, as well as what type of production they provide.
If it had not been for the Lamar Odom deal, the Dallas Mavericks would be quite thin up front with Tyson Chandler and Caron Butler both signing to different teams. Nevertheless, the absence of Tyson Chandler will certainly be felt this season, particularly against a team like Miami, which likes to penetrate and drive to the basket.
Chandler was crucial in the playoffs last season for the Mavs. He protected the rim effectively, provided stellar help defense, offered a huge target to the point guards for alley-oops and generated passion and intensity out of his teammates.
The Mavericks do not have a single player on their roster that can really provide what he can.
The opener against the Heat will be the first regular season glimpse into their lives after Chandler's departure. How do they contain the penetration of Wade and James without that big body clogging the lane? How will their shot-blocking be impacted?
With only two true centers on the roster (Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi), there is a perception that Dallas will lose their interior toughness. This will be the first time to find out if that belief is accurate.
The Lakers' decision to trade Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks in response to the Sixth Man of the Year-winner's apparent displeasure at the prospect of being traded for Chris Paul sent shock waves across the NBA.
The fact that the Lakers traded Odom to a conference rival for nothing in return made the trade seem all the more one-sided. Nevertheless, after losing critical pieces to their championship team (Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea are all gone), the Mavericks managed to still make a critical addition to their roster.
Odom is the ideal player for the Mavericks. He's got size, versatility, can score for anywhere on the floor and in tandem with Dirk Nowitzki will create matchup problems for most team's front lines. Odom's strong outing in his debut against the Thunder (14 points and seven rebounds) was a good outing for a player who is still trying to adjust to a new team.
With Miami's front line still uncertain, Odom could have a strong game on Christmas Day.
Last season, the Miami Heat got off to a less-than-stellar start when they were beaten by the Boston Celtics on the road in the season opener. This time around, they will once again open the season facing the team that ousted them the previous season on the road.
But there is one big difference: They can no longer use the excuse that they are a work in progress. They are expected by many NBA analysts to get off to a strong start to the season and an opening day loss may begin a new round of media scrutiny and fan apprehension.
The Heat obviously want to begin the season better than last season's 9-8. Given the fact that the opener against Dallas appears to be the most difficult game of their first five, a win on Christmas Day would go a long way in assuring that they will.
Lost somewhat in the surprise over the Lamar Odom deal is the fact that the Mavericks made two other acquisitions in the offseason.
The lack of reporting on these additions is fitting, though, because both players have significant liabilities that could derail Dallas' repeat hopes.
Vince Carter was once considered an elite shooting guard. Now past his prime, he has become something of a journeyman best known for his playoff miscues than the Vinsanity that shortly followed his entrance into the league in 1999. Many remember the moment in the 2010 playoffs against the Celtics when he missed two big free throws that would have given his team the chance to win the critical second game of the series.
Carter, who has never been a great defender, may prove to be a huge defensive liability for the world champs, and if he is entrusted with the responsibility of guarding Dwyane Wade in this game, look for Wade to get off early.
Delonte West has a nice mid-range game and experience to boot, but he is a liability on defense because he lacks quickness to stay with point guards and he lacks size to match up with shooting guards. If they are aggressive and attacking the rim, West could have problems with the Heat's two young, quick guards in Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers.
There are also questions about how much offense Carter and West will really be able to provide to the Mavericks this year. Their first exhibition game was not overly impressive, as they combined for just 14 points on 5-of-18 shooting in their preseason debut.
If West and Carter can't raise their games on both ends of the court, look for them to be abused by Miami's backcourt.
"The Heat don't have a point guard or center!"
This has been the primary criticism of this team since last season. However, there may be reason to believe the Heat may have solved the former problem, even if the latter appears to still persist.
Norris Cole had a solid debut during the first preseason game against the Magic (the rookie had eight points and eight assists) and Mario Chalmers proved equally capable of stepping up and playing well as he added eight points and five assists himself. Both are solid defenders as well.
The big question is: Will Chalmers be the starter in the game against the Mavs? And if he struggles out of the gate, how quickly will coach Erik Spoelstra insert Cole in the game afterward? Cole brings a level of athleticism and quickness to the point guard position for Miami, and if he can improve on his jumper, he can give opposing defenses headaches if they try to double the Big Three.
There has already been talk that while Chalmers is expected to start for the time being, Cole could potentially take the starting slot if Chalmers struggles early.
In some ways, Chalmers will be competing to keep his starting position as much as he will be competing against the Mavericks.
A lot has been made about LeBron James seeking out the great Hakeem Olajuwon to work on his post game. The Mavericks were able to beat the Heat, in part, because they limited James' drives and made him have to shoot jumpers, many of which did not go in during the Finals.
James' inability to hit perimeter jumpers, get to the rim or post up (for all his great talents, James' post game has been the one glaring flaw) rendered him a nonfactor for most of the Finals.
He has voiced his desire to change that this season.
It will be interesting to see how the Mavericks play James if he is taking their forwards and guards down in the low block. With no Tyson Chandler policing the lane, James may have a strong game in the paint.
That is assuming his post game has improved to the degree that he claims it has.
Remember back in 2008, when the Lakers, still reeling after their NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, played them in a "rematch" on Christmas Day? All eyes were on the Lakers, who were facing questions about whether they were "tough" enough to handle Boston.
They put all those doubts to rest by frustrating and defeating the Celtics in that game. Afterward, most began to believe the Lakers were indeed the team to beat for the 2009 title.
A similar situation will be facing the Miami Heat in their Christmas Day rematch with Dallas. If the Heat win, essentially putting a decisive halt to the festive atmosphere sure to be in the air, they will serve notice that they are indeed a different team than the one that the Mavericks faced six months earlier.
However, if the Heat lose to the Mavericks, especially if the game is a Mavs rout, the Heat will face a tidal wave of criticism likened to last season.
"The Heat still can't solve the Mavericks" the headline will read, followed by a litany of commentaries about why the Heat are still not good enough to contend for a title.