The Miami Heat are everyone's favorite conversation piece. And the big question on everyone's lips these days?
Can they win the NBA Championship this season?
The answer? No.
There won't be a championship parade in South beach this summer despite the lofty expectations of fans and the media alike.
Firstly, the Heat have a real issue with scoring in structured half-court sets. This is why the Heat failed against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals last year. They attempted to compensate for this weakness by adopting a new offense—termed "pace and space" by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra—that saw the Heat playing at a much faster speed than any other team in the league.
And for the first month or two, the Heat ran the rule over the league.
Miami were thundering along at over 98 possessions per game earlier this season, when legs were fresh and bodies felt young.
Now, however, the pace has dropped off to 94.1 possessions per game. That's not a significant drop, but it shows the effects of a long, tiring and tightly packed season like this one.
Last year the Heat played at around 95 possessions per game, which then dropped off to just 88.6 possessions per game in the playoffs—showing just how much slower the NBA postseason is played at.
And the Heat struggled.
With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade taking too many isolation plays, the Heat offense dies and they are reduced to one man (either LeBron or Wade) holding the ball. In this situation, whichever one tries to break down his man one-on-one and shoots when the shot clock gets low with four other players standing around him as virtual spectators.
What should really worry Heat fans is their difficulty in scoring in the half court. With a potential rematch against the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, an improvement in that department is desperately needed.
If the Bulls can limit their turnovers and prevent Miami's aggressive defense, they have the tools to break down and beat the Heat's offense, provided they can force them into isolation-heavy plays.
And if the Heat do make it past Chicago, as the form guide would suggest, they will likely face up against the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose defense is predicated on fast, athletic players chasing opposing players off their shots and forcing them into tough one-on-one battles.
With the length of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Durant mixed with the shot-blocking threat of Sere Ibaka and premier paint defender Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder are perfectly balanced.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Miami's game is energy. When the Heat are energized, they are incredibly aggressive on defense, forcing turnovers, grabbing steals and getting out in transition where the Heat are at their deadliest.
Energy comes easiest at home, where fans are on your side and their noise can fuel you (and scare your opponents). If the Heat lose the tiebreaker to Chicago (two games remaining, April 14th and 19th), they lose home-court advantage barring a massive slump from the East-leading Bulls.
That would mean playing up to four road games at one of the loudest arenas in the league, a place where energy would be impossible to come by for a team that lives and dies on their ability to stay aggressive.
And again, should they triumph over the Bulls, they may face the Thunder in the Finals, whose home-court advantage is probably the biggest in the league. No arena is louder than an at-capacity Chesapeake Arena. Playing four games in Oklahoma would be another tough proposition, one likely to result in a Heat defeat.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the expected Heat championship is the expectation itself. The pressure that favoritism brings could be enough to kill the Heat's chances as they succumb to the overwhelming media interest.
LeBron is the key to all that will happen to Miami if they make it to the Finals. After practically mailing in his Finals performance in 2011, even greater pressure will be on his shoulders to perform this time around as he fights to get that first ring and end the jokes around his ring-less resume.
If he can somehow get the monkey off his back and he can perform at his highest level, not only will the critics be forced into silence, but the Heat will likely be able to start planning the victory parade. A dominant LeBron James is by far the most dominant force in the NBA today.
And if the Heat land that elusive championship?
Be afraid, rest of the league, be very afraid. With the hump of the first championship topped, the pressure will be gone and the Heat will play better.
That and the small matter of the potential arrival of surefire Hall-of-Fame point guard Steve Nash over the summer, a move that could see the Heat become more dominant than ever before.