The Heat are insisting that they are not relaxing as they head into the 2013-14 NBA season seeking to be the first team to win three straight championships since the Lakers in '00, '01, '02. As what may naturally be a let down, after three long grueling seasons going to the NBA Finals, the leadership of the Heat are making the necessary shifts of thought to focus on getting better and not staying the same.
"Obviously, our team has to evolve," forward LeBron James said. "We can't be the same team we were last year. I don't think that's good enough to win a championship."
And that's something good to recognize, because the truth is that nearly every team that's close to them in the East got better, a lot better. Miami will have one of it's most difficult routes this season in light of the top heavy teams in the East. Last year, we saw the Indiana Pacers push the Heat to a Game 7 and gave them all they could handle. What does this year bring? Let's take a look at the teams that will challenge Miami in the East for a spot in the NBA Finals.
New York Knicks
The Knicks are about the one team that didn't improve over the off-season to a degree that causes discussion. With Amar'e Stoudemire still uncertain about his health, and the departure of the steady Jason Kidd, the Knicks could remain irrelevant in the East. Sure, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler will keep them as a tough opponent, but the addition of an aged Metta World Peace won't scare the defending champs.
The Bulls, however, have made one of the strongest acquisitions of the off-season, adding 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose back to the mix (we think he is coming back). Rose, obviously, changes the whole landscape for the Bulls and the direction of their season. Chicago finished in 5th place without their best player last season, and Rose has been rumored to return better than he was, and he was good.
The Bulls already have Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer who cause problems for the Heat on the glass and around the rim. With Noah, Luol Deng, and Taj Gibson all in their prime, Rose could have this team geared up to challenge Miami. And you know Coach Thibedeou will have a game plan to disrupt Miami. The Bulls have the tools to give Miami all they can handle, and remember with Rose they have finished with the best record in the East the previous 2 years (2011, 2012).
We'll find out on opening night how much the Bulls are ready.
The Nets offer a much different challenge than in previous years. Last season, they underperformed, being outed by the Bulls in the first round. But they've added first year coach Jason Kidd, and even more important than that they have brought in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. This major roster overhaul brings a lot of uncertainty about what type of basketball they will play, but it also brings some serious pressure.
Garnett and Pierce are all about winning, and don't forget that they don't like LeBron James and company very much. Will their tenacity alongside of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson be enough to take down Miami? It's possible. The Nets will have the size and talent to hurt Miami. With Lopez manning the middle, Garnett can return to his true PF position and anchoring the defense. And Deron Williams being surrounded by both Johnson and Pierce makes his penetration even more dangerous. This move definitely extends the careers of Garnett and Pierce.
The Nets will need to learn to come together as a team, but it's clear that these moves were made for them to win now. Is it enough? I don't know, Miami is good, but the Nets won't be backing down. With KG and Pierce suiting up, every game will have some personal aspect to it.
The Pacers took the Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and although Game 7 wasn't much of a challenge, the Pacers handed Miami all they could take. And I expect this trend to continue.
Here's the deal, the Pacers have every aspect a team needs to give the Heat trouble. They have the talented unit up front with Roy Hibbert and David West that constantly attack. Paul George is an emerging superstar and his contract is well earned. But what's scary about the Pacers is the additions that have tacked onto a team that already was good and matched up well.
With Lious Scola coming to Indiana, he gives them a tough and smart rotation player off the bench. People will underestimate what Scola does, but he is an all around complete team player. He will make his teammates more effective while being productive himself. The Pacers really got a steal with him. But even more than Scola, the addition of Danny Granger should make Indiana that much better. They pushed Miami without him, and if he comes back to the fold as a team guy and stays healthy then the Pacers will be extremely tough.
Now, Granger never lived up to be a superstar and he won't. But he doesn't have to. All he needs to do is let Paul George lead and for him to follow in whatever way Frank Vogel wants him to. If he can do that, the Pacers have added a dangerous piece to their roster. Granger is a scorer and someone who can play solid defense.
The Pacers have all the tools to beat the Heat, but they have fallen short the last two years. They could be the team to stop the three-peat, but they could also be just another team in the Heat's path.
Let's not forget that the Heat have also made additions. But they are both very risky with a reward type of players. Greg Oden, if a viable option for some minutes can become the guy alongside of Chris Andersen who makes the size issue disappear for the Heat. Oden could be the guy that stops Chandler, Noah, Lopez and Hibbert on his own - he is that good defensively. Or he could get hurt again...who knows?
And with Michael Beasley returning, we aren't trying to get our hopes up again, but we are hopeful that with a new start and a realization that this could be it, that Beasley straightens up and is able to contribute as an athletic scorer off the bench. He could spark the Heat like they haven't had before if everything falls in place.
And most importantly, let's not forget that IF Dwyane Wade is healthy, there really isn't much of a discussion around the East. A healthy Wade along with Chris Bosh and the MVP will equal another championship for the Heat. Unfortunately, Wade hasn't stayed healthy throughout and entire season lately. If he does, it's night-night for the East.
Either way, it's going to be fun to watch!
What do you think? Who's the biggest threat to the Heat and why?