It's never too early to begin talking about the NBA championship.
Not even before the preseason has even started. Because this is the NBA, there are only so many teams that have an actual chance at winning a title. The parity caused by the Boston Celtics creating a 'Big Three' in 2008, which has led to the creation of 'Big Three's' throughout the league, has created a significant divide in between the elite and the rest.
When there's a team as dominant as the Miami Heat, it only makes the options that much more thin. The Heat aren't just supporting healthier versions of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller, but also two premier three-point shooters in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, as well as the possible addition of a shooting big man in Josh Harrellson.
Even if Lewis and Harrellson don't pan out, isn't Ray Allen on the Miami Heat enough of a successful offseason?
Nevertheless, the Heat will still have significant challenges, especially out West. With Derrick Rose out of commission until spring and Dwight Howard now out West, the Heat's road out of the East has only become easier. However, there is one thorn in their side that may just end up playing the Heat for a fourth consecutive time in the playoffs.
We take a look at five championship contenders and how the Heat contain an advantage over each of them.
The Eastern Conference isn't thin enough to allow many sub-.500 teams in the postseason, but it is thin enough to know that only two teams stand a legitimate chance at making the NBA Finals.
The Boston Celtics are the only team in the East that will give the Heat a run for their money. Indiana lacks star power, Brooklyn's weak in the middle, Chicago's bench won't give the starting lineup the same leg-up it used to and New York is unpredictable and inconsistent. If there's any team that will challenge the Heat, it's going to be that veteran-laden Celtics team.
For two reasons: Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.
The lesser of those two evils in Garnett is still a furious and intense defender, who is still capable of being among the league's top defenders. At the age of 35 last year, Garnett had a PER of 20.5 in 20 playoff games...the most he's had since his first year with Boston. He played a huge factor on the defensive end; flashing out on screens, keeping assignments out of the paint and forcing passes to the perimeter.
However, he hardly holds a candle to Rondo when it comes to challenging the Heat. Rajon has been a Heat killer over the past few years, including last year when he recorded a staggering 44 points in a Game 2 defeat. Although Rondo somehow had the jump shot going in that game, it was a reminder of just how incredible Rajon can be when he is confidently nailing that jumper.
Miami has to realize that they can't give the quarterback so much space to work with.
Even with Rondo and Garnett, the Celtics have no answer for LeBron James. With the verdict still out on Mickael Pietrus, Boston's best choices to throw at LeBron would be Paul Pierce, Jeff Green or Brandon Bass. None of those players contain the ability to stop James, with Pierce and Bass being victim's of LeBron's wrath in last year's postseason.
With Pierce one year older, the advantage in LeBron's favor gives the Heat a significant edge in a matchup between these two rivals.
The Los Angeles Lakers have had quite the offseason, haven't they?
Steve Nash replacing Ramon Sessions at point guard and Dwight Howard replacing Andrew Bynum? Sounds scary. It's even more scary when you notice Nash led the league in facilitating pick-and-roll's, while Howard led the league in points scored off the pick-and-roll. That alone is mind-numbing to think of, but it only gets better when you realize that Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant are on the team, too.
Oh, and let's not forget defensive specialist Metta World Peace and Antawn 'Averaging 17 points at age 35' Jamison are there as well.
Yes, this Lakers team is certainly worth worrying about. But let's not get too hasty when crowning this team. They don't exactly have any answer for Russell Westbrook, unless you want Kobe Bryant tiring himself out by the second half, and Kendrick Perkins has played Dwight Howard better than any other center. In 24 meetings, Perkins is holding Howard to a mere 16.3 points per game.
So let's not get too ahead of ourselves in this dream matchup between the Heat and Lakers, because there's an Oklahoma City team that's just as hungry to make it back to the NBA Finals.
If the Heat and Lakers do match up, however, we could be in for quite the surprise as to what Miami would throw out to neutralize Pau Gasol and Howard. It seems that Chris Bosh at center and either Shane Battier or Rashard Lewis at power forward could be the best bet to making Gasol and Howard's influence minimal.
Miami doesn't have the size to compete with the Lakers. In order for them to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series, they'll have to win the game their way by playing a small lineup in a similar fashion they did against Oklahoma City.
If Bosh is out on the perimeter and Lewis or Battier is out there as well, it's going to force Howard and Gasol to move to the perimeter, putting them out of their comfort zone and out of the paint.
Once the paint opens, it's open season for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Of course, there will be problems on the defensive end and rebounding when it comes to overcoming the length of Gasol and the size of Howard. If Miami wants to limit the Lakers on offense, they're going to have to stop them at their head in the form of Steve Nash.
He will be the primary facilitator for this team, and the only way to stop Howard and Gasol would be to keep the ball out of their hands by keeping Nash out of the paint.
Going into last year's NBA Finals, we thought for sure Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins would end up playing critical roles if Oklahoma City hoped to defeat Miami.
Instead, Ibaka ended up playing only 26 minutes per game and Perkins only 23 minutes, which led to him complaining about playing time and Scott Brooks' coaching methods. They both played well below their averages and neither player ended up playing large roles, despite the fact they were going against a team that primarily scored near the basket.
The Heat made this happen because they ran a small lineup that neutralized the presence of Ibaka and Perkins. Chris Bosh was too quick to be held by Kendrick Perkins and Shane Battier dragging Ibaka out to the perimeter made him nearly useless. With Bosh and Battier playing so many minutes and their ability to space the floor playing such a large factor, the Thunder had no choice but to run a small lineup that couldn't keep up with Miami's.
Miami made Ibaka and Perkins non-threats, so the Thunder's defense became thin. Outside of Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison, no Thunder player stood out on the defensive end. Durant hardly kept LeBron James in check, which led Brooks to actually having Durant guard Mario Chalmers for a time in order to prevent his star player from getting into foul trouble.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Derek Fisher did little to limit Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, who ended up having the game of his life in Game 4 when he dropped 25 points. As good as Chalmers can be when he's playing confident and aggressive, it's disgraceful for a team like Oklahoma City to allow the Heat's fourth, arguably fifth, scorer to have the biggest game of his career at that time.
Oklahoma City didn't pick up any solid defenders this offseason, either. They'll get Eric Maynor back and Perry Jones from the draft, but they hardly answer any sort of defensive questions when they face off with Miami in the 2013 Finals.
Call me crazy, but this Denver Nuggets team is a dark horse championship contender if I've ever seen one.
There are quality players at every position, including possible starters coming off the bench. Knowing that the likes of Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, Anthony Randolph, Timofey Mozgov and Wilson Chandler will be coming off the bench is a testament as to how deep this team is.
They currently have four 7-footers on their active roster, including former Washington Wizard JaVale McGee, who could end up becoming an All-Star.
Think about it. McGee is an athletic freak with absurd length. He can dunk like Blake Griffin, but unfortunately also has a similar offensive repertoire.
McGee's work in the post is sometimes awkward and his footwork is weak, which considerably limits his capabilities as a 7' monster who could become a top three caliber center. If he were to come up with a stable offensive game, there would be so few answers in the NBA.
The Heat wouldn't be one of those teams with an answer, and that's why they scare me more than they should.
However, what the Nuggets don't have is star power. If history has proven us anything, it's that these rosters without a definitive All-Star leading the way don't work long enough when it comes to the postseason. The Nuggets are a team with a number of good players, but they're lacking that one great player to use as a crutch throughout a game.
Miami has three of those players, and the Nuggets don't have much of an answer for either of them. Kenneth Faried and McGee would do a fair job defending Chris Bosh, but Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari have never defended LeBron James well, nor has Wilson Chandler when going against Dwyane Wade.
Denver is a deep team and that has proven to be a thorn in the Heat's side in the past. However, Miami's bench has become significantly deeper with the additions of Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier over the past three seasons. If Mike Miller regains some sort of healthy standard, then it only makes the Heat that much more dangerous.
Perhaps I'm being too redundant here?
Or not at all. In fact, couldn't LeBron James be answer for the Heat against each of these championship contenders? He's the league's best player by far, capable of doing everything and is finally rid of the pressure that came from being without a title for the first eight years of his career.
No team has anything near a defensive answer for him, outside of Tayshaun Prince, who has held James to only 23 points per game.
Luckily for Miami, facing the Detroit Pistons in the postseason is a long shot.
The San Antonio Spurs are an excellent team because of how well-run they are. They rely heavily on fundamental basketball that ends up maximizing the potential of every player that hits the floor. Every player has their own niche, and coach Gregg Popovich knows how to get all five players on the floor involved and in situations where they are best fitted to score.
I wouldn't lay any doubt on Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili, neither. When healthy, Ginobili is still one of the league's top shooting guards, even at the age of 35.
His ability to hit the three-ball, yet still drive as well as any other guard or forward makes him one of the league's most volatile dual threats. He's never been that athletic, so he has found ways to get to the rim that will aid him in his later years.
As for Duncan? He's 36 years old on bad knees, and he's still capable of being one of the league's top power forwards. His fundamentally sound style keeps him relevant and as a significant part of one of the deepest rosters in the league.
Throw in an MVP candidate in Tony Parker and you have a championship contender.
What they lack, however, is someone who is capable of limiting LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard was abused by James in the Spurs' only meeting with the Heat last year and he is the only realistic option on the Spurs when it comes to limiting LeBron.