The Thunder were considered to be no worse than the clear second-best team in the NBA, and after losing Game 1 on the road, the Heat had soundly defeated them in five. Considering the competition, Miami's brilliance at times was breathtaking, making us wonder how any team could ever win a title as long as they remain together.
They have the greatest player in the world, in his prime and now relieved of the burden of being the world's greatest player without having ever won a title. They have possibly the best two-way players at their positions in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and a championship coach who has only just begun to find his groove as he enters his fifth season.
And as if returning all nine players who averaged over 19 minutes a game wasn't scary enough, this season they will add the best three-point shooter of all time to a team that was already in the top third in three-point shooting a year ago.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that to be displaced as the favorites to repeat, one of two things would have to happen:
2) Significant improvement from other contenders.
Well, the Lakers improved. Of only slightly lesser consequence, other teams did, too. Both by acquisition (Nuggets, Celtics, Nets) and internal improvement (Clippers, Spurs, Pacers), challengers to Miami's throne have emerged as part of the conversation.
Requirement No. 2 has been met, but has anyone done enough?
Boston could give them a run in the East. When healthy, the Celtics will go eight or nine deep, with added punch in Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and Jared Sullinger and championship-level defenders who happen to match up with the Heat as well as any team in the league.
They lasted seven games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, and they could conceivably stonewall the champs should they meet again. The rest of the Eastern Conference is heavy on 4/5 seeds, but teams like Indy and Brooklyn could be capable of extending playoff series and making the Heat sweat. Maybe.
In all likelihood, their stiffest test will come in the finals, where they'll face one of a handful of potentially great Western Conference teams.
- Despite the loss of James Harden, who struggled in last year's finals, the Thunder remain among the favorites to win it all. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have another year under their belt, and they add Kevin Martin to replace some of Harden's scoring. They should be even deeper after the trade if Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III can find ways to contribute as rookies.
- Dwight Howard could certainly present some challenges for a team that starts Chris Bosh at center. There is a lot of time between now and June for the Heat to upgrade the roster (plenty of veteran bigs to be bought out), but if the Lakers make it to the finals in one piece, their size gives them a chance.
- The Clippers and Spurs lurk as dark horses to make it to the finals, and both would pose matchup issues for Miami in a seven-game series. The latter can be said for any of the teams that could come out of the West this year.
Obviously, if the Heat do what they do, none of this will matter.
When you return a group that finished last season fourth in defensive efficiency and eighth in offensive efficiency, you don't worry about what other teams are doing so much as what you can do better.
They won a title last year by constantly adapting and still doing things their way. They mixed and matched with different lineups, and thanks to the the size of Wade and James, the defense could be dynamic with Bosh at center and Shane Battier at the 4.
The offense runs on a relentless barrage of high-efficiency looks created by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and that doesn't figure to change. They specialize in getting to the free-throw line (14 attempts per game between them in 2012) and finding teammates for threes, a formula that tends to work out well.
All of which makes their new additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis seem just excessive.
According to Kirk Goldsberry, "Ray Allen from the left corner is the most potent player/spot combination in the NBA." Last year, he shot 57 percent from the left-corner three and 51 percent from the right wing. Miami as a team shot 37 and 36 percent from those spots, respectively, both just above league average.
What's clear is that if things play out as you'd expect, a top-five offense wouldn't be out of the question. And a team that loaded that is also so balanced deserves to be considered the favorite until we have reason to believe otherwise. At this point, another title is theirs to lose.
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