Coming off their NBA Finals victory in 2012, the Miami Heat will have to tear through many teams this season if they are to repeat as champions.
Some opponents are legitimate threats to dethrone Miami. Others, not so much.
The main targets the Heat has its sights on is threefold: the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially whichever of the latter two represents the Western Conference in the Finals.
But Miami must not overlook other obstacles lurking in its path to glory. You never know when a pretender can suddenly morph into a contender out of nowhere.
The following teams are the top five the Heat must not fall asleep on this season, ranked from the least dangerous to the most.
Odds are, this team will take a year or two playing together before they reach their true potential. The Heat learned that lesson in 2011.
Still, Miami fans should shudder a bit when looking at Brooklyn’s starting lineup. The worst player of the five is Kris Humphries, and he finished in the top five in rebounds per game the past two years.
Deron Williams is a top 10 NBA player, and he plays point guard, one of Miami’s biggest weaknesses. He’s also physically superior than Mario Chalmers, standing two inches taller and weighing 20 pounds more.
Gerald Wallace is one of the best defenders in the league. Although no one can really stop LeBron James, Wallace is one of the few that can potentially slow him down a bit.
Don't forget Joe Johnson, who gives the Nets a perimeter scoring option that greatly complements Williams.
Finally, while Brook Lopez has had health problems, he’s also a very good scorer down low.
It’s a stretch, but if all the stars align perfectly for Brooklyn, they could give Miami a scare.
OK, so they won’t be on Miami’s road to the Finals, but the Denver Nuggets face the Heat twice in Miami’s first 10 games.
Denver is arguably the most athletic team in the NBA, featuring freaks like Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee.
They are one of the few squads in the NBA that can outrun the Heat, and they won’t be afraid of Miami’s championship pedigree.
The Heat will probably start out the season a little sluggish with multiple players still nursing some injuries. If they’re not careful, they could easily see two early losses to the Nuggets.
Last year, Rose missed 41 percent of the regular season, and the Bulls still clinched the East’s best record by four games.
Once they get into the postseason with a healthy Rose, anything can happen.
He’ll still have about a month or two to get acclimated with the team’s offense and overall chemistry.
And torn ACLs don’t have the same long-term effect they used to. Just ask Adrian Peterson.
With today’s advanced science and medication, Rose may not be 100 percent come playoff time, but he’ll be darn close.
Remember when the Pacers took a 2-1 series lead and all of Miami panicked? I sure do.
The Heat of course, responded to the wake-up call well and won the next three games. However, despite a combined 70 points, 27 rebounds, 15 assists, three steals and four blocks from LeBron and Dwyane Wade, even Game 4 was a tough battle until the very end.
Miami didn’t have Chris Bosh for all but one half of this series, but Indiana didn’t really have Danny Granger, who decided to not show up for any half.
The Heat should really be scared of Roy Hibbert, who ate Miami’s frontcourt alive when he was on the floor. Despite the Pacers losing the series 4-2, they outscored the Heat by 26 points when Hibbert was on the floor. Had he not found himself in constant foul trouble, the outcome of this series could have been very different.
If Granger can play to his potential and Hibbert stays out of foul trouble, Miami could be in for a rude awakening.
Center is by far Miami’s weakest position on the floor.
And if Hibbert can expose that weakness the way he did, just imagine what Andrew Bynum can do.
Bynum is the league’s best low-post scorer. The only guy who would have a shot at slowing him down would be Joel Anthony, and that automatically puts the offense in a four-on-five situation.
Also, in the frontcourt, Philadelphia has Lavoy Allen, who emerged as an extremely reliable bench option in the playoffs last year, and Spencer Hawes, one of the most underrated big men in the league that can also stretch the floor with his three-point shooting.
Then there’s Jason Richardson and Dorell Wright, both of whom can go off on any given night with their long-range capabilities.
More importantly, Philadelphia has depth, something Miami has been in search of since LeBron and Bosh came to town.
Oh, and they ranked third in points allowed last season.
Don’t forget, the 76ers took the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year. With a year of solid playoff experience under their belt, they’ll be even more poised and hungry for a deep postseason run in 2013.