As the 2013/14 NBA season tips off, the only question that matters is: can anyone can beat the Miami Heat, or will they continue to put the squeeze on every team in the NBA?
The Heat, led by superstar LeBron James, have made three consecutive NBA Finals, and won the last two NBA championships.
Needless to say, they remain the yardstick by which every other franchise in the league is measured.
Though on the surface it appears as though the Heat have been dominant – and at times they have – Miami certainly didn’t waltz their way to the title last season, with both the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs pushing them all the way to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, respectively.
In fact, the Spurs did everything but beat the Heat, blowing a championship-deciding game six, despite being up five points in the last 20 seconds of the game.
Just how close were the Spurs to winning the title? Security had already surrounded courtside, and the post-match podium was ready to be wheeled onto the centre circle.
So by no means are Miami certainties to win the title, though they will deservingly start the season as favourites.
Much of the Heat’s success can be accredited to LeBron. He’s the best player on the planet, and arguably only just hitting his prime.
Surround him with quality players, as Miami have done, and it’s a recipe for success.
The off-season saw the Heat sign injury-prone Greg Oden and the troubled Michael Beasley. Both additions are low risk/high reward, and if they come off towards the latter, the Heat will be near unstoppable.
Yet, even if both players flame out, a nucleus of LeBron James, (a healthy) Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chambers, Chris Anderson, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, etc., should be expected to win the title.
So can anyone beat the Heat?
Starting with the Eastern Conference, the obvious candidate is the aforementioned Pacers, one of the two teams that pushed Miami to seven games in the playoffs last year.
Indiana had a wonderful off-season, upgrading their bench significantly, plus they’ll get All-Star Danny Granger back from injury.
If Paul George can continue his ascendancy towards stardom, they’ll give Miami all they can handle, and they probably have the best chance of any team in the league of beating the Heat.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Heat are simply better than Chicago, even if Derrick Rose returns 100% healthy.
The Bulls will once again compete hard and play exceptional defense, but they’re one high quality player short of being a true contender.
The Brooklyn Nets will be intriguing, but I fear the age of their core players may be an issue come playoff time.
If Jason Kidd can mange the team’s minutes, they could be dangerous, but after age caught up with the Knicks and Lakers last year, I’m extremely wary of veteran teams at the end of a long season.
Meanwhile, the New York Knicks and their fans will remain exactly what they were last season: lippy pretenders who talk a mean game, but provide little real threat to Miami.
I can’t realistically see anyone else from the East seriously challenging Miami.
Out west, there are a number of high calibre teams with championship ambitions.
You can never count out the Spurs, even though everyone usually does. San Antonio are the perennial horror movie villain, who simply won’t die.
They’ll once again be near the top of the Western Conference, but unless Kawhi Leonard can make the leap to All Star level, the Spurs won’t have improved enough to topple Miami, who have the potential to be better than last season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, for the second consecutive season after making the NBA Finals, have actually regressed from a roster talent point-of-view.
Salary cap constraints aside, losing James Harden/Kevin Martin for essentially nothing can never be described as a positive.
Combined with Russell Westbrook’s injury and Scotty Brooks’ questionable coaching, and it’s a little difficult to see the Thunder winning the title – despite Kevin Durant’s brilliance – but certainly not impossible.
The Los Angeles Clippers are built for regular season fun, but playoff pain. They’ll score a bunch of points, be wildly entertaining, and be much improved on the sidelines with Doc Rivers now coaching the team.
However, he can’t improve the frontcourt’s free throw shooting, low post play or its lack of depth, which all stand out as major issues for the Clips.
The Memphis Grizzlies still lack outside shooting and dynamism on offense. Come playoff time, opponents will simply double team their post players, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and dare the Grizzlers to beat them from outside.
They couldn’t last year and unless Mike Miller can stay healthy, it’s hard to see that changing.
The Golden State Warriors will be fun to watch, but are not a realistic championship contender. There are simply too many questions about their defence, their reliance on perimetre shooting, and their health.
I could easily see them getting hot and once again doing some damage in the playoffs, but hot enough to win four series in a row? That’s some hot streak, even for someone of Steph Curry’s shooting prowess.
The Houston Rockets may actually have the best chance to challenge the Heat as they have the right weapons to hurt Miami.
However, the issue is that they’d have to actually make the Finals in the first place, and I’m not sure they’re ready to advance past two or three of the above teams just yet.
Everyone else in the Western Conference would just be happy making the playoffs.
All in all, Miami certainly aren’t unbeatable, and there are a number of talented teams ready to take up the challenge of knocking them off.
Yet when push comes to shove – as it does in the playoffs – I’d still prefer to have my money on LeBron and the Heat than anyone else.