Having now made three straight trips to the NBA Finals, it's probably fair to call the Miami Heat a "great" team. But what's remarkable is that LeBron James and associates will head into the 2013-14 season with the opportunity to be even greater.
That's hard to imagine, but a number of variables could help the Heat dwarf the 66 wins they amassed last year. And it's possible that they're now even better equipped for a postseason run.
At the same time, Miami is also more fragile than ever. Injuries, questions of motivation and a crop of extremely dangerous competition could result in a surprisingly rough year for the Heat.
In other words, Miami has some serious range.
It's true that every team will head into the season with unknowns that are bound to either raise the ceiling or lower the floor on their potential. But the Heat are uniquely tough to pin down. They're facing more uncertainty than anyone.
The biggest questions will arise after the season, when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their contracts. But that's a long way off. For now, it's ridiculously fun to play the "What If" game for the Heat's upcoming campaign.
What If the Gambles Pay Off?
The Heat took a pair of fliers on Michael Beasley and Greg Oden this past summer, bringing both into camp with no real expectation that either would play a significant role by the time the regular season began.
Each player comes with a veritable sea of question marks—Beasley's being character-related, while Oden's have to do with his porcelain lower extremities.
Miami doesn't need either reclamation project to pan out, but what if it does?
We'll start with the potential upside Oden brings, largely because it's possible that by the time you read this, he'll be undergoing another season-ending surgery and will no longer be pertinent to our discussion. Time is of the essence here.
If we pretend that Oden can stay healthy enough to give the Heat consistent minutes in the middle, he'll immediately become the team's best inside presence by a huge margin. Remember, this guy has career averages of 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in just 22.1 minutes per game. And defensively, the version of Oden that managed to get on the court for the Portland Trail Blazers four years ago was a legitimate game-changer.
Maybe he'll go down for the season tomorrow, or perhaps he'll only be able to give the Heat a few good minutes per week. But even if he's able to play in just a handful of critical playoff games eight months from now, he could be Miami's secret weapon against the one thing that gave it fits last year: elite size.
Beasley is a different case, as his ability to stay healthy isn't an issue. With nothing but an extremely limited bench role available, it's possible that the former No. 2 overall pick could become a sneakily useful rotation piece.
Assuming B-Eazy gets his act together—and that's a massive assumption—he could function as Miami's garbage man extraordinaire. Erik Spoelstra would never have to run a play for him, but Beasley could be a real contributor on the offensive glass and as an intriguing small-ball power forward.
Think of him like a younger version of Antawn Jamison.
The luxury of being two-time defending champs is that the Heat don't need Oden or Beasley to give them anything. Interestingly, it's possible that that very lack of dependence is going to be the best thing for both players. Oden won't see the reason to push himself, and Beasley will be living with the daily knowledge that he's eminently dispensable. A short leash could be just what he needs.
So, no, the Heat won't be a lottery team if Beasley and Oden don't work out. But if one or the other can provide a couple of the team's missing ingredients, Miami will have added some potentially excellent rotation pieces.
The rich might get even richer in 2013-14.
What If Dwyane Wade's Health Holds Up?
Wade's ugly postseason performance seems to have overshadowed yet another top-notch regular-season effort. With averages of 21.2 points, five rebounds and 5.1 assists on 52.1 percent shooting, Wade was terrific during the course of the year.
His playoff struggles—Wade averaged just 15.9 points per game in the postseason—have been well-documented, but what nobody's currently discussing is the fact that Wade's knee issues aren't guaranteed to resurface. Spoelstra was clear in pointing out that Wade's injuries were the result of collisions, not chronic problems with the joints.
If that's the case, it's entirely possible that Wade could carry his excellent regular-season play right through the postseason this time around.
The Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs both came painfully close to beating Miami last year, largely because Wade couldn't function as a consistent second option. If he had been fully healthy, it would have been much less likely that either of those series would have gone down to the wire.
And guess what? Wade's working out with legendary trainer Tim Grover again.
If he enjoys a renaissance season, Miami could be more dangerous than ever.
What If Cruise Control Kicks In?
It happens all the time: A championship team rests on its laurels and watches as hungrier competition passes it by. Any honest viewer would have to concede that the Heat coasted during periods of their 66-win season in 2012-13, so we know that they have a tendency to relax.
Perhaps Miami will embrace that approach this year. It's counterintuitive, but there's actually some sense in taking it easy during the coming regular season.
The Heat have to know that the Eastern Conference is going to be a dog fight in 2013-14. The Chicago Bulls are better than ever, armed with a healthy former MVP and ready to make a run at the No. 1 seed they owned in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
The Pacers bolstered their bench and expect Danny Granger to be able to contribute all year. Toss in the growth of newly maxed-out Paul George and a more consistent effort from Roy Hibbert, and Indy might be ready to sprint to its own 60-win season.
So in a year shaping up to feature more top-end teams than any in recent memory, perhaps the Heat will be content to rest their stars as they cruise to a relatively quiet 55-win campaign. They've always been confident in their ability to flip the switch when necessary, so maybe we're in store for something of a ho-hum year.
The possibility of Miami taking it easy is just one example of why it's so hard to forecast how the Heat will play in 2013-14.
What If Injuries Finally Catch Up?
For all the talk of Wade's durability problems, he still managed to suit up for 69 games last year. Chris Bosh played 74, Ray Allen played 79 and even Shane Battier somehow managed to gut his way through 72 contests.
And after missing no games in 2011-12, James played 76 last year due to a couple of unnecessary days off toward the end of the season.
Injuries are unpredictable, and it's sort of silly to suggest that the Heat are "due" to suffer through worse luck than they have in the past. But this is a veteran team that has made three consecutive postseason runs; it's bound to wear down eventually.
Obviously, that line of argument presupposes that James is, in fact, not a cyborg. Based on what we've seen so far, it's possible that he's simply not programmed to feel pain. But assuming he's human, the Heat's health becomes a pretty significant "what if" that could have a major impact on the season.
One substantial injury to James or Wade could suddenly pull the Heat back toward the middle of the pack in the East.
What If LeBron Is Serious?
I know, I know; it sounds ridiculous. How in the world could James have improved?
Go ahead and doubt him if you want, but we've seen LBJ add facets to his game year after year. Two summers ago, a post-up arsenal materialized. Then came the three-point shot and the total cessation of mid-range jumper attempts. Adding facets is what he's always done.
So there's certainly a precedent to support the incredible claims that he's gotten better.
In a way, this is the biggest "what if" yet. If James truly has added to his game, a handful of other bad breaks for the Heat might not even matter.
Wade could miss half the season, Oden and Beasley could flop and Miami could half-heartedly shuffle its way to a No. 4 seed in the East. But none of those things will matter if James is going to show us a previously unimagined level of greatness.
That sounds exciting, doesn't it? Personally, I'm not sure I want to wait to see how the Heat's year is going to play out.
So, what if we just went ahead and started the season tomorrow?