The Miami Heat come off the back of their title-winning 2011-12 season looking stronger than ever.
Finally free from the pressure of winning their first title together and with new additions at key positions, the Heat can look forward to defending their status as the NBA's best team.
It's no mean feat repeating as champions. Only the L.A. Lakers have done so since Jordan's second retirement in 1998. The last time the Heat hoisted the trophy (back in 2006), they lost their next season opener by 45 points and were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
This time around looks like a different prospect.
After winning in 2006, Miami effectively blew it up. Shaquille O'Neal was gone, and the Heat were waiting for free agents to give them a chance. Contrast that to this summer, when free agents were raring to jump onto the Miami roster and chase their own championship ring.
Along with this, the Heat can look around them and see other signs that their 2012-13 campaign may be just as rewarding as last season.
Mario Chalmers was the oft-criticized little brother of the Miami Heat throughout last season.
Then the NBA Finals happened.
Specifically, Game 4.
Chalmers truly broke through as a quality NBA point guard in that fourth game on South Beach, posting a gaudy 25-point total on 60-percent shooting from the floor. His three-point shot returned as he hit three in the game after hitting just three in the first three contests combined.
The close-out Game 5 was another clear sign of Chalmers' growing worth to the Miami Heat. Ten points, seven assists and two steals filled his box score as Chalmers again dictated the game and helped the Heat finally clinch the trophy.
Chalmers should be confident of repeating that success as the new season begins in October, especially now that he has won the trust of his superstar teammates, the ones that so often got on his back early in the season.
Rashard Lewis' best seasons may be behind him, but the Miami Heat still improved vastly with the addition of the veteran forward.
The Heat had to field some (initially) strange lineups with Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and LeBron James playing the center and front-court positions respectively. Bosh ended up as the starting center, and the lineup became successful for Miami, though it hurt Bosh's ability to match up on other stellar power forwards.
It also left Miami with very few options for backups. Udonis Haslem excepted, the Heat had Eddy Curry, Dexter Pittman and Joel Anthony as their big men.
Now they can boast a player who has performed at a high level and has the motivation to end his career with a championship, a player with proven performance in a position in which the Heat desperately needed help.
All this allows the Heat to keep Bosh's minutes to their optimum amount, keeping him fresh and ready to face the new threat over in Los Angeles.
The Miami Heat's attempts to retain the NBA title will be made easier this season after the regression of a number of teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls will be without 2011 MVP Derrick Rose after his left-knee ACL tear in the opening game of the playoffs; he'll be out until at least early March. The Bulls also blew up their much-feared "Bench Mob."
The Boston Celtics made additions to address weaknesses in the front court through the draft and also added Courtney Lee and Jason Terry. The trouble is that after losing Ray Allen, these are more replacements than true steps towards beating Miami.
The New York Knicks will still have a myriad of issues surrounding on-floor chemistry and will not be challenging again this year barring a stroke of coaching genius.
The Indiana Pacers, the plucky team who pushed Miami hard in the second round, also did not take any significant steps forward.
The Philadelphia 76ers are perhaps the only improving team with the addition of superstar center Andrew Bynum, though the loss of scoring-wing Andre Iguodala may hurt them. Philadelphia may well get the injured Bynum, thus setting them back even more. However, a healthy Bynum vaults them into contention for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, especially now that Dwight Howard is no longer in the conference.
In all, Miami's main competition will still be either Boston or Philadelphia, both of which the Heat are capable of defeating.
As mentioned, Derrick Rose will be out well into 2013.
Couple that with the outright destruction of the Bulls' vaunted Bench Mob, and the Bulls are no longer looking like the team that led the league in wins for two straight seasons.
Sure, the new bench group is not bad. It has wing scoring from Marco Belinelli and Vladimir Radmanovic. It has veteran height in Vladimir Radmanovic, and it has its spark plug in Nate Robinson.
But without Rose, it may all be for nothing.
Despite the team's lofty 18-9 record without him last season, they were playing those games knowing that Rose would be back tomorrow or in one week. This time, they know it's going to be another six months before his return to action and at least another six on top of that before he returns to his former self.
All of this means the door is wide-open for the Heat to canter to the East's top seeding.
The Oklahoma City Thunder essentially were no match for the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
And so far this summer, they have done little to change that.
They have extended Serge Ibaka, but there have been no other movements of note by the Thunder.
Perhaps they don't need to make any moves; they have a great lineup as it is, but with the arrival of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder now have a massive battle just to get back to the NBA Finals again this season.
The Spurs are another of the Heat's rivals that have not improved this summer.
The team was found out as it came up against the young, fast and athletic Thunder in the Conference Finals last season, and they were shown it needed to get some youth into its system.
The offseason is coming to a close, and with it comes the chance to address needs. So far, the Spurs have stood still while others around them have added talent to their ranks.
Sure, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker can still get the job done as they proved last year. Plus, they still have Gregg Popovich.
But with the moves made on South Beach, is that enough?
Miami's lineup of Chalmers, Wade, Battier, LeBron and Bosh was a curiosity at first.
Now, it's expected and will likely reap huge rewards for the Heat.
Small ball was the way both Miami and Oklahoma City went at each other throughout the Finals with big guys like Kendrick Perkins finding minutes hard to come by as traditional positions went out the window and both teams just fielded their best five players.
Look for that trend to continue this year after Team USA's success with the strategy at the London Olympics. They took only one true center with them and made do with a small-ball lineup even against teams boasting tough seven-footers.
LeBron has shown he can defend any position, point guard through center. He had no troubles last season playing power forward and played some of his best, most dominant basketball while he was there.
It truly ruins the strategies of other teams, especially those in Philadelphia and Boston. Kevin Garnett cannot deal with the athleticism of Chris Bosh at center, and Andrew Bynum will struggle to match the lateral quickness of Bosh when the two teams meet next season.
This paves the way for the positional revolution to continue, and the Heat are poised to lead that way.
LeBron had one of the greatest seasons in basketball history in 2012.
He was NBA MVP for the regular season, MVP for the NBA Finals, NBA champion with the Miami Heat and an Olympic gold medalist with Team USA at the London Games.
He won it all.
It's a feat that has only been accomplished once before way back in 1992 when Michael Jordan led the Bulls to title glory and was a part of the original Dream Team that has been constantly compared to this years' US national team.
His confidence will be higher than ever before. The championship monkey is off his back. The pressure is gone, and he can play with a greater freedom knowing that he has that first championship in the bag. There's no more questions about whether he'll ever win one or not.
That should scare the rest of the basketball world—LeBron playing under no pressure.
Ray Allen joining the Miami Heat was the biggest pre-Dwight Howard signing of the summer.
The all-time leader in made three-point field goals joining a team already boasting two of the top-five players in the league and one of the top fifteen makes the Heat a nearly unstoppable force.
The Heat had Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Shane Battier to spot up for threes last season. Now, they can show off perhaps the best shooter the game has ever known.
To think he'll come off the bench and be guarded by second-string players is even more frightening.
Depth was always an issue with the Miami Heat.
Those days are gone.
Ray Allen can come off the bench on this team alongside Rashard Lewis, providing some much needed scoring and veteran leadership to one of the league's poorer bench units.
Allen can relieve Wade from some of the heavy minutes he has been playing, helping prolong his ability to perform at his limit as his age advances. Lewis, as mentioned before, provides much needed help in the front-court rotation and has years of experience—not that the Heat need it now that they have that first title in the bag.
The Heat have been there and done that. At the end of the day, this could be the biggest boost to the Heat's 2012-13 campaign to repeat.