Recently, columnist Peter Emerick wrote a power ranking of the 30 teams in the NBA and broke down the likelihood of each team winning the title next season. In a break with tradition (the current title holder is generally considered the favorite for the following season unless it has a major roster overhaul a la the Mavericks last season), Emerick chose the Oklahoma City Thunder as the favorites to walk away with the title next season.
His reason? The draft.
"While [rookie forward Perry] Jones III has yet to do anything for the franchise, he's an exciting prospect and a player who could very well end up being the additional bench production the Thunder lacked last season," said Emerick, essentially arguing that an unproven rookie will be the player to tip the scales in the Thunder's favor and allow them to get past Miami in the finals.
This argument is dubious at best. As much as the remaining Heat detractors may hate to acknowledge it, the Heat are the clear favorites to win the title again next year.
I understand that there is almost a year between now and the 2013 NBA Finals, and a lot can happen before then. Injuries, blockbuster trades for opposing teams and struggles for Miami's supporting cast may prevent Miami from repeating, or even reaching the finals again. But right now, the Heat appear to be the best team in the NBA still, no matter how you slice it, especially if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are fully healthy for their next playoff run.
Here is my breakdown of Miami's chief rivals and how I conclude that the 2013 title is currently theirs to lose:
Boston Celtics: They are the only team on Emerick's rankings that I am truly concerned about at this point. I know they have been doing this "farewell Big Three" tour for four seasons now, and you have to wonder how healthy they will be with the age of their roster, but few duos in the NBA can cause as much trouble for Miami as Rajon Rondo and a healthy Kevin Garnett. They have a great playmaking point guard, a great defensive philosophy and a big man that can score and defend well in the post. None of the other teams have ALL of these attributes, and you must if you want to beat the Heat.
I know that Jason Terry will be an excellent pickup for the Celtics, but I have doubts about how well he fits into the Celtics system. The Celtics like to move the ball and find the best possible shot for themselves. Terry is a volume scorer who doesn't care about his field goal percentage. That recklessness could be a detriment to Boston. But if this team stays healthy, it is the biggest threat to the Heat.
Oklahoma City Thunder: According to most NBA experts, the Thunder are the team most likely to threaten Miami's chances at a repeat next year. However, I'm not convinced of that right now. We saw their weaknesses come to the forefront in the finals, and I don't know how they can fix them by next year. Kevin Durant is one of the league's premier scorers, but I think he has more holes in his game than the Durant lovers want to acknowledge (his defense is lacking, he's not a great ball-handler, he needs a post-game, he needs to cut down on turnovers, etc.). He will be better next year, but LeBron James will still be the best and that will be the difference.
Additionally, Miami exposed the fact that if you limit one of the Thunder's big three (like James Harden), no one else can beat you offensively. The Thunder is supposed to be so "deep," but name me one consistent scorer on that team in the finals not named Russell Westbrook or Durant? Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha can't score with any regularity. If you defend the pick-and-roll well, it's Harden's kryptonite. Until I see a more concise defensive philosophy from this team, I'm not yet ready to anoint them the team to beat the Heat.
LA Clippers and LA Lakers: Heat writer John Friel argues that the two Los Angeles franchises could be a threat to the Heat. The latter has one great player, one player who has played poorly in back-to-back postseasons and one up-and-coming player who people keep describing as the "next great center," but still lacks the maturity to handle that title with any sense of desire to prove it accurate.
The rest of the roster is comical. Unless the Lakers are able to land Dwight Howard for Andrew Bynum in a trade, the current team would get mauled by Miami in the playoffs. The Heat's defense and athleticism will simply overwhelm the slower and older Lakers.
As for the Clippers, we don't know what Lamar Odom will look like when he plays for this team. CP3 is a stud, and Blake Griffin is improving, but defensively, this team just doesn't scare me. Too many question marks on this club to truly call them a threat.
San Antonio Spurs: Nope, I don't see it. NBA analyst Michael Wilbon said that they may have been a bigger threat to Miami than the Thunder were had they gotten to the finals. I couldn't disagree more. Their post game basically begins and ends with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Timmy is one of the all-time greats, but at 36, I don't know how effective he can be against Miami's quick, aggressive post-defense. Plus, imagine Wade and James driving to the basket and seeing Splitter standing between them and the rim. He is not a center that would invoke fear in those guys.
Like OKC, the Spurs are a jump-shooting team, which the Heat would neutralize with their excellent perimeter defense. Unless the Spurs regain the defensive attitude of that title team from 2007, I can't view them as a viable threat to Miami.
Chicago Bulls: No Derrick Rose=no chance against the Heat. Maybe Rose comes back in March or April and has an impact, but it would have to be a huge impact to avoid another Heat steamroller like in 2011. The Bulls play excellent defense and, if healthy, will certainly give the Heat a tough series. But the playoffs are the stage where superstars play their best, and the Bulls only have one true star on their team in Derrick Rose. Coming off a serious injury, he can't be expected to carry this team past a more talented Heat squad.
Indiana Pacers: No Hibbert=no chance. If Hibbert joins the Blazers, the Pacers' sole advantage will be gone. But even if the Pacers match the Blazers' offer and retain Hibbert, Miami would still have the three best players in a potential series between the teams.
Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams is no LeBron James. Joe Johnson is no Dwyane Wade and Brook Lopez is no Chris Bosh, so assuming this trio could rival the Heat's "Big Three" is a stretch. Obviously, the equation changes if they can trade for Dwight Howard, but not much in my opinion. I would have to ask what shape the rest of the team will be in if nearly all of its salary is going to four players, two of whom are not as good as Miami's third. Would this team have much of a supporting cast? What happens if one of their max contracts players get injured? Would they have the money to add a player that could hold down the fort until Williams or Howard returned? This is one of those teams that sound better in theory than in practice.
Conclusion: The Heat are still the favorites by a wide margin. The other great defensive teams in the NBA don't have their versatility in offense (Chicago and Boston can defend, but their offense is questionable) and the great offensive teams lack the Heat's defensive capabilities (Thunder and Spurs can score, but can't defend nearly as well). The Heat have the best player in the NBA. The Heat have a supporting cast that proved much stronger than most NBA analysts believed. The Heat may also be healthier during this postseason run than they were in 2012.
Think about this: They beat the second-best team in the NBA in the finals in five quick games despite their second and third-best players battling injuries. A full-strength Heat team in the 2013 playoffs would still be the favorite to win it all again.