NBA Power Rankings: The Top 5 Challengers to the Miami Heat in 2012-13

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2012

NBA Power Rankings: The Top 5 Challengers to the Miami Heat in 2012-13

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    After vanquishing the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 2012 NBA championship, the Miami Heat went out and became even stronger this summer.

    The addition of Ray Allen, the most prolific three-point shooter in league history, gives the Heat the reliable sharpshooting option they lacked for most of last season. The thought of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade driving and dishing to a wide-open Allen should be terrifying 29 other fan bases.

    There's no guarantee that 33-year-old Rashard Lewis has much left to offer besides three-point shooting (with 38.8 percent career average) and the ability to fit into Miami's positional revolution.

    With their Big Three still intact, though, do the Heat need much more from him? Doubtful.

    Assuming Miami hasn't suddenly replaced the original Dream Team as the most unbeatable team in basketball history, they'll still have at least a few challengers to their throne next season.

    These are the five teams most likely to topple Miami in their quest to repeat.

5. Indiana Pacers

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    It wasn't all that long ago that the Indiana Pacers held a 2-1 series advantage over the Heat in the second round of the playoffs, with a golden Game 4 opportunity at home. James and Wade went nuclear those next three games, staving off the upset bid, and we all know what happened next.

    The Pacers honestly believed they could have toppled the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs the season before last, so the loss to the eventual NBA champions should only make them hungrier this year.

    It all starts in Indiana with the 7'2" Roy Hibbert, who the Pacers retained on a four-year, $58 million deal this summer. Hibbert's stats from this past season don't necessarily jump off the screen (12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds), but his height and size affect far more shots on the defensive end than the box score suggests.

    In Danny Granger and Paul George, the Pacers have two wings who can easily score 20 points per game and at least try to shut down James. The Pacers traded point guard Darren Collison to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi this summer, but retained point George Hill on a five-year, $50 million deal before signing D.J. Augustin as a backup.

    At the time of writing, Indiana remains weak at shooting guard, but a free agent like O.J. Mayo or Courtney Lee would fix that hole right up. Indiana, barring injuries, should make it back to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs this year, at the very least.

4. Boston Celtics

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    The Celtics went on a miracle run this postseason to get within one game of the NBA Finals before LeBron decided to transform into Dexter Morgan and murder anyone who got in his way on the court.

    Following their Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics managed to sway Kevin Garnett away from retiring with a three-year, $34 million deal, but lost another member of their Big Three, Ray Allen, to Miami.

    Despite the loss of Allen, the Celtics could potentially not drop-off very far. Boston added Dallas' Jason Terry, an obvious choice to replace Allen as the team's sixth man, and brought back Brandon Bass, Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green, the latter two of whom weren't available for the playoffs due to now-resolved heart conditions.

    With the additions of rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo in the frontcourt, the Celtics suddenly appear to have the size they desperately lacked toward the end of last season. Still, Kevin Garnett should see a majority of his time at the 5 this season, unless Melo's more NBA-ready than anyone expects.

    Assuming the Celtics and Heat meet again in the playoffs, Boston's Rajon Rondo will likely stick to Allen like white on rice, making sure he doesn't get a single easy shot off all night. Considering the growing rivalry between Boston and Miami, it would be unwise to count the Celtics out as a contender this early in the year.

3. Brooklyn Nets

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    Despite not landing Dwight Howard (yet), the Brooklyn Nets have dominated free agency this summer, largely by virtue of re-signing All-Star point guard Deron Williams to a five-year, $98 million deal.

    The addition of Joe Johnson via trade gives the Nets an All-Star laden backcourt, which some in the Nets organization believe is the best in the league today. Sure, the four years and $90 million left on his contract are a bitter pill to swallow, but if owner Mikhail Prokhorov doesn't mind the luxury tax bill, what's left to say?

    The Nets may have overspent on Gerald Wallace (four years, $40 million) and Brook Lopez (four years, $60 million), but Lopez had the same offer sheet from at least two other teams and the Nets couldn't afford to lose him without Howard coming aboard. Brooklyn also managed to nab former Bulls point guard C.J. Watson on a two-year, veteran's minimum deal, giving Williams a legitimate backup.

    Add in two sharpshooters in Bosnian power forward Mirza Teletovic (newly added) and second-year guard MarShon Brooks, along with the yet-to-be-re-signed Kris Humphries, and the Nets suddenly have one of the stronger cores in the league on paper.

    Their results on the court could end up being a different story entirely, depending on how stringent their defense can become this season. But, based on talent alone, the Nets have the talent to make a run in the East this year as one of Miami's greatest challengers.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Assuming the Lakers don't trade or amnesty Metta World Peace by opening night, the team will feature five former All-Stars as starters, thanks to the surprising addition of two-time MVP Steve Nash this summer.

    A Nash-Kobe Bryant backcourt, until further notice, has claim to being the best backcourt in the NBA based on talent alone. (Sorry, Brooklyn). Nash's ability to orchestrate the pick-and-roll should result in more easy baskets for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, not to mention open shots for Bryant.

    After the Oklahoma City Thunder ousted the Lakers from the playoffs this past year, Bryant said, "I'm not fading into the shadows... I'm not going anywhere."

    With Nash, he's got the chance to prove it.

    If Bryant can prevent himself from going into Hero Kobe mode—which the Olympics should only help with—the Lakers will have a real shot at knocking off the upstart Thunder and making their way back into the Finals for the fourth time in the past six years. 

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Could there really be anyone else here at No. 1?

    The five-game loss to Miami in the NBA Finals still stings Kevin Durant and the rest of his Thunder teammates. Durant openly admitted that seeing LeBron at Team USA practice bothers him.

    With Durant, Westbrook and Harden all soaking up the Olympic experience this summer, they'll only come back to Oklahoma City that much more dangerous this fall. A number of players from the 2010 FIBA World Championship team used that international experience as a launching pad for career years.

    Imagine if the same happens with all three of the Thunder's Olympic stars? If so, that Thunder-Heat NBA Finals rematch could come as early as next season.

    The Thunder didn't make many huge moves this summer, but the addition of Perry Jones III in the draft and Hasheem Thabeet in free agency fills up OKC's bench and gives them even more options to play with this season. Add in backup point guard Eric Maynor, who will return from an ACL tear this season, and you can see why the Thunder didn't need to be a major player this summer in free agency.

    The Thunder enter the year as the clear favorites in the Western Conference and the No. 1 contender for the Heat if they meet again in the Finals. 

Three Others to Watch

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    These three teams just missed the cut. Here's why:

    San Antonio Spurs: After winning their first 10 games in the playoffs, talking heads began asking if the Spurs could actually finish off their Fo'-Fo'-Fo'-Fo' sweep. Naturally, the Thunder then won four straight games to sweep San Antonio out of the playoffs.

    The Spurs haven't made any significant moves this summer, which leads me to question what will be different if they run into OKC in the playoffs again. The Lakers arguably took a step above them this summer with the addition of Nash, too. 

    Los Angeles Clippers: If Blake Griffin hadn't just torn the meniscus in his left knee, I'd be more confident about the Clippers this season. The additions of Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford, not to mention the re-signing of Chauncey Billups, should more than offset the loss of Nick "Swaggy P" Young and Mo Williams.

    The Clippers' status as a contender, though, comes down to the health of Griffin's knees. If he can't get fully right this season, or if Chris Paul goes down with an injury, that'll be all she wrote for the 2012-13 Clippers.

    Chicago Bulls: Like the Clippers, Chicago's contender status here is tied to the leg of one man: Derrick Rose. After tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the NBA playoffs, he's looking at 8-12 months of recovery, which could have him back in uniform around New Year's Day... or could cause him to miss the 2012-13 season altogether.

    The Bulls put a scare into Miami in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, and would have likely made a return trip this past season, if not for the sudden injury woes. Despite losing a good chunk of their "Bench Mob" this offseason, the Bulls can be back in the thick of the championship race if Rose comes back healthy by February.