You probably shouldn't be entirely surprised that the Miami Heat are once again the favorites to win the championship, at least according to the oddsmakers in Vegas.
According to gambling destination Bovada.lv, Miami leads the way with 9-to-4 chances while the Los Angeles Lakers hold the second-best prospects at 11-to-4. Needless to say, acquiring Dwight Howard helped narrow a gap that was once much wider.
Isn't it fair to ask by now whether there should be a gap at all?
Sure, the Heat got better, but the Lakers got significantly better. And it's not as if the Heat were unbeatable throughout the postseason. Heat fans can blame that on the prolonged loss of Chris Bosh, but they'd be wise to remember that the New York Knicks were missing key pieces (Jeremy Lin, Iman Shumpert) and Boston Celtics were playing hurt (Paul Pierce, Ray Allen).
And for their part, the Oklahoma City Thunder's third-leading scorer James Harden went awfully cold.
More importantly, neither the Heat nor any other team has had to face this season's Lakers.
That they are an unknown commodity cuts both ways to be sure.
For all we know, the Lakers could implode on account of old legs, bad chemistry, a failed new offense or some combination of all the above.
We should know better though, and so should the Heat.
The Lakers now have something that no team in the Western Conference can offer: a big man capable of dominating the game on both ends of the floor. It should go without saying Miami doesn't have an answer for Dwight Howard either.
LeBron James may be able to guard five positions, but he can't guard Howard.
Nor can Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony.
The Lakers also have a point guard who will make the rest of the team exponentially better. LeBron James may be the league's best all-around playmaker at the moment, but even he could learn a thing or two from Steve Nash when it comes to running an offense.
Nash should make Pau Gasol and especially dangerous weapon.
The Spaniard sets hard picks but has incredibly soft hands for a seven-footer, along with an automatic mid-range jumper. That will make him a constant threat in pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) situations.
Miami also earns plenty of credit for its perimeter defense and deservedly so.
After all, if the Heat shut down the Thunder, and the Thunder best Kobe Bryant, what hope does Bryant have against defenders like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Shane Battier? Well, he had a fair amount of luck last season when he scored 28.5 points on 50 percent shooting in his two games against Miami.
But more than any single new face, the Lakers will also go into this season with a much better bench. Free-agent additions Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks will spread the floor, and Jordan Hill will benefit from spending training camp and a full season with the team.
LeBron may be versatile, but he can only be in one place at one time. The Lakers have four difference-makers and an improved supporting cast.
Regardless of what the odds say, Los Angeles is now the NBA's team to beat.