LeBron James mustered every last ounce of energy to carry his new-look Cleveland Cavaliers squad past a weak Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals, but it will likely be a tougher road this season.
The Miami Heat look to be one of the most improved teams in the NBA and Dwyane Wade might play more games this season than the Kyrie Irving.
James himself acknowledged in July that the Heat are "doing some great things" since he left.
The injuries to Irving and Kevin Love have thrown a monkey wrench into James' plan for domination of the NBA universe. Past the very talented trio of James, Irving and Love, the Cavaliers squad features role players such as Knicks castoffs Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova, etc.
The recent SI top-100 list included all of the Heat's five starters. As reserves the Miami have Amar'e Stoudemire, Josh McRoberts, Gerald Green, Mario Chalmers, rookie Justise Winslow, etc. On paper the Miami have such a talented bench, that some would be starters on other teams. The team has the depth to survive the 82 game schedule, and be ready for post-season play in good shape.
A starting five of Goran Dragic, Wade, James, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside would probably not even be permitted to happen in the NBA, because, on paper, they would obliterate the competition. The less than amicable departure of James from Miami, along with selling his residence in South Florida, makes the chance of James returning to his second home more remote than Kevin Durant joining the Heat. But he may question though whether "Decision 2.0" was the right one.
While James was glad to be back in Ohio, the injury gods did not treat him kindly with Anderson Varejao getting hurt early in the season, Love missing in action after getting injured against the Boston Celtics and then Irving not being at full strength in the playoffs before succumbing to a major injury in the NBA Finals. Another issue this season is the failure to sign Tristan Thompson to a max contract and how it impacts their chances of retaining him in addition to Timofey Mozgov next summer after already signing Varejao and Love to big deals.
James also has to cope with a talented, but enigmatic coach brought in from overseas with no familiarity on how the NBA works. David Blatt has favorites in Mozgov and Sasha Kaun, who are immobile big men that can be exposed in a small-ball game.
The Cavaliers also have five players among SI's top-100, Mozgov and Thompson being the other two, but they are redundant since they are both big men. After Irving, the Cavaliers have Williams and Dellavedova as playmakers, so their talent level drops off significantly using bench players.
Though hampered in free agency last offseason because of James' delayed decision, Pat Riley has done a superb job since then of putting together a balanced roster of guards and forwards, with talented back-ups in each position. This season he has two promising rookies, plus he picked up two steals from the D-League last season in Whiteside and Tyler Johnson. Riley is slowly injecting youth into the team, although critics don't acknowledge it.
With the team Riley has constructed this season, James may have wished he would have delayed his return to Ohio a few more seasons. Some Cleveland Cavaliers players and coaches will assemble for pre-training camp sessions in a yet unknown location in Miami (James still has his unKnwn store in the Aventura Mall).