8 NBA Teams That Pose Biggest Threats to LeBron and Heat Next Season

John Friel@@JohnFtheheatgodAnalyst IJuly 4, 2012

8 NBA Teams That Pose Biggest Threats to LeBron and Heat Next Season

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    They finally did it. After all the criticism, scrutiny, hate, chitter-chatter, rumors, far-fetched trade rumors and bumping of the gums, the Miami Heat and their Big Three have finally won a title.

    It seems like it took an eternity, but it only took two years. That's what tends to happen when you let the media run wild with a story that attracts the interest of certain viewers. They can stretch it out, edit it in certain ways and make story after story about things we already know about just so they can prove to other outlets who can make the bigger blowhard of themselves and acquire more ratings.

    I digress. The Miami Heat didn't get the easy postseason run like so many expected when Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard went down with injuries because of a significant injury of their own suffered by Chris Bosh at the start of their semifinals series against the Indiana Pacers.

    The Heat showcased their resilience and sense of urgency by fighting through the Pacers and doing as much as they could against a Boston Celtics team that knew how to take advantage of a Heat team without arguably their most important player. Luckily for the Heat, Bosh returned just in time to give the boost the team needed in Game 7.

    Then came the Thunder, and it went exactly the opposite of how we expected. What we anticipated was a high-octane series that would surely go seven games simply because of the star power of each team. What we got, however, as an experienced Heat team serving it up to an inexperienced Thunder that looked a little starstruck.

    Now every team is angry. They're angry that the Heat proved everyone wrong and that they couldn't be the team to put them in their place. To be honest with you, however, there are two teams that realistically could put a scare into the Heat, and neither team is the Chicago Bulls or New York Knicks.

    We take a look at the eight teams who pose the biggest threats to the Miami Heat and their shot at a second consecutive title.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    If you think this Oklahoma City Thunder team should make any significant moves involving the core, you should probably start watching a different sport.

    Their starting lineup is the most well-rounded in the league, they have three of the league's best scorers and the league's leading shot-blocker. This team can score bunches of points in no time and can widen or lessen deficits before you could even think about making an answer. When you play the Thunder, you need to recognize that no lead is ever safe.

    Also, their top four players are all 23 years old or younger. Trust me, the Thunder aren't going anywhere any time soon. The Thunder had the pieces and the mismatches to defeat the Miami Heat, but made all the wrong decisions and failed to get their usual support from certain players. Much similar to last year's Western Conference finals, the Thunder looked a little red under the bright lights.

    If James Harden plays average basketball, the Thunder could be the NBA champions. It's tough to defeat a Heat team with LeBron James playing the best basketball of his career and the role players stepping up in spots where you would usually see Harden perform. Oklahoma City played a two-man game on offense and still made a game out of just about every contest besides Game 5.

    It simply wasn't meant to be last year. When Mario Chalmers is scoring 25 points or when LeBron James can hit a three-pointer on one leg or when Shane Battier scores nine points or more on four occasions, what is there to do? You've just got to keep playing your game, but it becomes nearly impossible when the opponent is playing just as efficient on defense.

    The Thunder are still an extremely scary team. Because of their age alone, they're going to be a team the Heat will see in the NBA Finals a number of times. They'll win a few times, too. They're too good not to win at least once or twice.

    Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden got the Finals experience; now they'll transfer it over to future Finals matchups.

Chicago Bulls

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    Because of an injury suffered by Derrick Rose that ended up concluding his postseason, we weren't able to be delighted with a rematch between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.

    Even though the Heat defeated the Bulls 4-1 in their conference finals matchup in 2011, the Bulls were still in every game. Game 5, in fact, had the Bulls up by double-digits the entire game up until the final minutes. The Heat put on one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history to turn a 76-64 deficit with less than four minutes remaining into an improbable 83-80 victory.

    It was games like that which explain why so many people wanted to see the Heat play the Bulls again. To be perfectly honest, however, it might have been for the best that the Bulls didn't end up playing the Heat this year. It wouldn't have been fair knowing that Rose could have been continuing to be hampered to the injuries that threw him off all season.

    It's better to let the 2011 MVP get his rest in order to play the Heat because Rose didn't have all that much success against the Heat in that series when he was healthy. With LeBron James defending him in the fourth quarter, Rose shot a collective 1-for-15 in the five games and was constantly made a non-factor in the final 12 minutes.

    Derrick Rose is too good of a player to continue getting stopped by James, and Tom Thibodeau is too good of a coach to allow his star player to get shut down. Obviously, the Bulls will find ways to either keep James away from Rose or allow Derrick to continue progressing as a player and find out ways to use his physical and mental attributes to beat one of the league's top perimeter defenders.

    The Bulls defense still ranks amongst the best in the league. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik can all be thanked for that. However, Asik may no longer have a say in how well the Bulls defense performs if the team fails to match the offer the the Portland Trail Blazers gave to Omer earlier this week.

    If Asik doesn't return, the Bulls are not nearly as much a threat to the Heat as they would be with him.

Boston Celtics

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    My thinking coming into this offseason was, "Please let last year be the final season the Boston Celtics are really good."

    As a loyalist of the Miami Heat, the Celtics are a team that strike fear into me like no other. Since acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to play alongside Paul Pierce, the Celtics basically dominated the Heat up until last year's semifinals. Even then, a Celtics team featuring Rajon Rondo playing with a dislocated elbow made the Heat sweat down to the final seconds.

    If it wasn't for LeBron James making shots like this one, the Heat could have easily seen their series against the Celtics go seven games as it did this year.

    Despite the Celtics struggling against a Philadelphia 76ers team that would have been annihilated by the Heat had they advanced, Boston came 48 minutes away from upsetting the Miami Heat and making their third trip to the NBA Finals in the past five seasons. Luckily for the Heat, Chris Bosh made his return in Game 6, and LeBron James had arguably the most dominant postseason game in NBA history.

    Not having Chris Bosh hurt the Heat. However, you could say the same for the Celtics, who were playing without Jeff Green and Avery Bradley. Green is expected to re-sign with the Celtics, and there appears to be no indication of Bradley leaving the team, either.

    Have you seen the Celtics this year? If they end up re-signing Ray Allen and if the rest of their core of elders remain healthy, they're by far the Heat's toughest competition in making it to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive time.

    They already have Rajon Rondo, who ends up turning into Magic Johnson whenever he plays the Heat, Paul Pierce, a wily veteran who thrives in the clutch, and Kevin Garnett, a foul-mouthed, physical and aggressive monster that would instill fear into the heart of man or beast.

    They'll also look forward to the versatile Jeff Green returning, Brandon Bass, defensive specialist Avery Bradley and developing center Greg Stiemsma.

    Oh, and they're about to sign Jason Terry. Oh, and they also drafted Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo.

    A healthy Heat team is still better, but a healthy Celtics team with experience could be the most dangerous obstacle Miami will need to encounter in order to continue asserting its dominance over the East.

New York Knicks

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    One side of me is telling me this New York Knicks team will never get it together. The pieces don't fit at all, the key players aren't willing to make the adjustments and sacrifices necessary in order to make things work and the team is investing far too much money into three players that don't carry the same impact as say the Heat's Big Three.

    The other side continues tell me the Knicks still have one of the league's best rosters. Two premier scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, the Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler, a sharpshooter in J.R. Smith and a budding star in Iman Shumpert? That's a solid core for any team looking to contend.

    So far, the side that benefits the Heat has shown up. As seen in the Heat's first-round triumph over the Knicks, Miami proved time and time again that it was the smarter team who knew what it took to win. It took Carmelo Anthony scoring 42 points and playing unconscious in order for them to win a game by two points. Isolation can work to win a game, but never an entire series.

    Know what else doesn't help to win a series? Having two players combine to take more shots than the entire rest of your team.

    To be perfectly honest, the team is a solid point guard away from being legitimate. Somebody who can find a way to get Stoudemire consistently involved and get Tyson Chandler the easy alley-oops that he's been thriving off of over his NBA career. The Knicks need a playmaker who can get others involved, not someone who's just looking out for himself.

    This Knicks Big Three appears to be constructed with the intent of being an opponent to the Heat's Big Three. The problem is that the Knicks had two players whose contracts were over-the-top and just assumed that Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Dwight Howard would eventually become the third member.

    It takes far more than just talent to win. 'Melo and Stat should have known that after watching the Heat struggle early on when first joining up. Anthony, above all others, needs to make the necessary adjustments and become the playmaker the Knicks need him to be in order to become a legitimate contender.

    Until then, they're just a bunch of guys wearing the same colors.

San Antonio Spurs

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    I'm done doubting the San Antonio Spurs.

    For the past few years, I find myself saying, "This has to be the year where the decline of the San Antonio Spurs begins."

    What ends up happening? They prove me wrong and end up winning 50 games and making a deep postseason run.

    This past season was no different, as so many of us continued to doubt the Spurs, which only led to the team possessing the league's top record and winning 20 consecutive games. They came two games within making their first NBA Finals since 2007, but succumbed to the Oklahoma City Thunder after losing the final four games.

    Are the Spurs done now? Not in this lifetime. Not as long as the team has a legitimate rotation that extends 10 players, an MVP candidate at point guard, one of the league's top slashers and shooters coming off the bench and the greatest power forward in NBA history in the starting lineup. So no, I don't think the Spurs are done, and neither should you.

    The Spurs simply know how to play the game correctly. They're an extremely smart and experienced team led by an intelligent coach that preaches fundamentals. It's a perfect storm of experience, intellect and fundamentals all combining together, enabling the Spurs to become perennial championship contenders year in and year out.

    It's not going to stop, either. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are getting older and ailing? They'll find ways to involve themselves and create their usual impact as the crafty veterans they are.

    As long as Tony Parker is leading the way and guys like Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green continue developing, the Spurs will remain a relevant and extremely dangerous team.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    What? The Los Angeles Lakers are done after two bad postseasons?

    Please, Kobe Bryant is still on the team, and as far as I am concerned, that means the Lakers are still very much a relevant team that can be considered a legitimate championship contender.

    Even if Kobe will be turning 34 years old next year, he's still one of the league's top three players. He can still break your back via crucial jumpers at the most inopportune times and is still known for being a high-volume scorer who can devastate just about any opponent that attempts to step up to him and his Lakers.

    Bryant came percentage points away from winning the scoring crown last year, and may have actually won it had he played in the final game of the season and scored at least 30 points. Despite the injuries and ailments that have him chartering flights to Germany in order to repair his damaged body, Bryant still has the heart of a champion and the mindset of a killer.

    What I'm attempting to say here is that he's not one to be taken lightly.

    Outside of Bryant, the team still has Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol for now. Both their names have been brought up in several instances over the past few days, with the Lakers having the intent to either start signing younger players or make an all-out effort go acquire Dwight Howard. It hasn't occurred, however, so the Lakers still have their twin towers under the rim.

    I'm not sure as to why the Lakers would want to trade either player. This three-man core of the Lakers has led to two titles over the past four seasons, so let's trade away key components in order to get better? The Lakers have put themselves in a tough situation with their salary cap situation, but they need to find a way to build around their stars, not trade them away.

    This Lakers team simply needs some more offensive support off the bench. Without Lamar Odom, the Lakers became forced to rely on guys like Matt Barnes or Steve Blake as their top contributors off the pine. As we should have all realized, it wasn't going to work out.

    Los Angeles is still an incredible team, and I'm not even close to ruling out the last team to go back-to-back only two years ago.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Now, now, I'm not saying the new-look Brooklyn Nets are a team the Heat should be worried about.

    However, I will say that they are creating a mighty fine roster that's worthy to take an honest look at. It's crazy to think how well the Nets have come out only three days after free agency started and a week before players can even begin to sign with teams. As of right now, the Nets just have a bunch of guarantees on their plate.

    Since July 1, the Nets managed to re-sign Gerald Wallace, trade for Joe Johnson while only giving away four role players and finally convinced Deron Williams to re-sign with the team to a five-year deal worth $100 million. Williams was being heavily pursued by his hometown Dallas Mavericks, but the Nets made the necessary moves to convince Deron that the roster was suitable enough to make a championship run.

    If the Nets end up trading for Dwight Howard, then they'll be a bit more serious. However, I don't see the Magic, who have been extremely reluctant at the thought of trading Howard, willing to take on Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks and three first-round picks for the services of the league's top center.

    They also signed Reggie Evans to a three-year deal.

    Still, the Nets have a solid team. Wallace is still one of the league's top versatile forwards, and Johnson is an All-Star who can hit from anywhere at any time. The main component, however, is Williams, who could easily give a team like the Heat fits. Miami has proved to be incapable at stopping opposing point guards, and it will only be exemplified once it plays Williams.

    Deron is one of the strongest, quickest guards in the league and can kill you from a scoring or a passing standpoint.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Yeah, call me crazy, but this Los Angeles Clippers team really scares the hell out of me.

    There are a lot of athletes, a lot of scorers and a lot of playmakers on the Clippers. A lot of players who can swing the momentum of a game. I'm talking about guys like Nick Young, who can make shots from anywhere, an excellent swingman in Caron Butler or even the diminutive Eric Bledsoe, who will be getting point guard guidance from Chris Paul.

    Also, who knows how Lamar Odom is going to play? So many people are quick to write him off, but he just won Sixth Man of the Year two seasons ago. He may not play up to that level again, but he will offer serviceable minutes to a Clippers team that could use the depth.

    We haven't even gotten to Chris Paul. In his first year with the Clippers, CP3 changed the entire outlook of the team and turned them from a cellar dweller into a playoff contender. He was a legitimate MVP candidate after averaging 19.8 points, 9.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per and led the Clippers into the second-round for the first time since 2006.

    CP3 just makes the game look easy. Not since Allen Iverson in his glory days with Philadelphia have we seen a undersized guard make playing the game of basketball look extraordinarily easy. Paul completely changes the dynamic and mood of the game once he hits the floor; his teammates thrive with him, and the opposition has no choice but to focus all of their collective attention upon him.

    They have to. Otherwise, Chris Paul is doing Chris Paul things. You don't want Chris Paul to do the things that have caused him to finish in the top five in MVP voting three times. It's seemingly impossible to stop him when he gets things going on offense; because how else do you stop a player who can penetrate, shoot from beyond the arc and make the smart pass.

    However, what the Clippers' success truly rides on is Blake Griffin and his adjustment to the way defenses played him last year. Although his stats were nearly the same in his rookie season, Griffin found himself in awkward situations on offense because of his inability to convert on open jumpers.

    Too many times was Griffin given the ball for a wide-open mid-range jumper only to hesitate and either pass out, make an ill-advised attempt to drive or simply take the jumper.

    It's a little too early to say Griffin will be one-dimensional for the rest of his career. He just turned 23 years old in March and has already shown improvement in his jump shot. It's only going to get better. While his shot may not reach the level of other power forwards like Dirk Nowitzki or Chris Bosh, he can still make his shot respectable enough to respect.

    For now, the Clippers aren't too scary. It's all riding on Griffin and his commitment to becoming a more well-rounded player.