Seems like only yesterday that Miami Heat fans were watching in awe as a team built with superstars finally lived up to the hype.
Fast forward a few months, and as the smoke has cleared, the plot has also thickened.
As we now sit hours before tipoff, anticipation builds, and the only guarantee this evening for the Miami Heat is a ring ceremony to celebrate last year's triumphant victory.
Festive in theory, but when those "bling-rings" are placed back in the case and the court clears, their biggest obstacle to reliving that moment will watch silently....fueled by a passion to replace them on that grand stage.
As we prepare for this long journey, inquiring minds want to know what we can expect from the men expected to answer the call? Today we examine that very question.
PG—Mario Chalmers & Norris Cole
Last year, Miami Heat fans saw tremendous growth and evolution in these two young studs. Mario Chalmers was a little inconsistent in the beginning, but by the NBA Finals, his heart proved to be far bigger than anyone expected.
It should come as no surprise when we recall what he did at Kansas on college basketball's biggest stage.
Norris Cole, on the other hand, showed promise from day one, shining with big moments from the very beginning of the season. Those shining and defining moments for Cole carried through the playoffs, all the way to an eventual championship, showing that Cole was truly a diamond in the rough.
This season, Miami Heat fans can look for both men to build on those big moments, and without doubt exceed them. They have the freshest legs on the team, and down the stretch, when others may drag, they'll have the energy to drill shot after shot.
Team Point Guard Grade: B+
SG—Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen
Wade will enter the season eager to stay healthy and prove that—while the team may be led by LeBron James—the Heat is greatly fueled by the man we once knew as "Flash."
Ray Allen on the other hand will enter the season with a major chip on his shoulder. Statistically, Allen had a pretty rough year last year, but a new setting this season could rejuvenate his career.
Allen started last year for the Celtics, but the brutal schedule of the lockout-shortened season wore out the veteran and, by the end of the year, injury and fatigue became major factors. This time around, Allen won't be required to carry as much of the load, yet it remains to be seen whether that will actually help or hurt him.
Allen is a rhythm shooter. Therefore, the operative question becomes, does fewer attempts help his legs but hurt his shot? Because of this, I don't see him having a huge shooting year, but a being a savvy veteran, Allen will benefit in two other areas: defense and playmaking.
Watch the "steals" and "assist" count grow like never before in his career.
Team Shooting Guard Grade: A-
SF—Shane Battier/LeBron James/Mike Miller:
LeBron James enters the season on the heels of his first NBA championship. Down the stretch in the NBA Finals we saw him evolve like never before. Now that the ring is on and the monkey is off his back, expect LBJ to continue to ascend. His confidence is booming, and his evolution is blooming! That means one thing and two words: Watch out!
Shane Battier has become the opposite of the New York Yankees A-Rod—often missing when there's little importance, yet coming up huge when it's time to play for all the marbles. Battier has in many ways been the heart and soul of Miami's defense when the game counts the most. With a much deeper team this year, fresher legs will only mean a fresher Battier down the stretch.
Mike Miller found a way to answer critics at a point when few felt he could. That defining moment came when the title was on the line and he was on his last leg (literally). Injuries prevented us from seeing his true worth. This year, with more depth and a chip on his shoulder, fresher legs could ultimately mean a "Magic" Mike down the stretch.
I expect Miller to have a very productive year with timely shooting and timeless memories.
Team Small Forward Grade: A-
PF—Chris Bosh/Udonis Haslem/Rashard Lewis
Chris Bosh is as good as it gets at the Forward position. Many look at the dominance of James and Wade and view Bosh's contributions as "minor" yet fail to see the non-statistical contributions night in and night out.
Bosh's shooting and athleticism for a guy his size makes him irreplaceable. This year Heat fans can expect to see him establish himself as a perennial inside presence as well, paving the way for greater contributions by Lewis and Haslem.
Udonis Haslem has been the proverbial "garbage man", not only able to do the dirty work but willing to do the dirty work. Injury and age have slowed him down a tad, but he has the heart of a lion and won't be denied. Solid rebounding and defensive pressure is his calling card, but timely shooting makes him a very valuable asset. Barring any health concerns, Haslem will be what he's always been: "Ole Reliable."
Rashard Lewis will be the "project" for this years Miami Heat team, entering with great hope, yet no promise. Last season he only played in 28 games, averaging seven points and three rebounds in 26 average minutes of play.
Presumably healthy this year, Lewis could be the spark needed to add timely shooting and a monstrous presence on the offensive end, both in size and expectations.
He can still score and—although not necessary on this team—fans can expect him to be enough of a perimeter scoring threat to prevent double-teams.
Team Power Forward Grade: B+
C—Joel Anthony/Dexter Pittman/Josh Harrelson
Joel Anthony is slated as the teams starting Center, yet remains a true work in progress. Last year we saw a slight evolution, but considering the solid bigs around the league, it remains to be seen whether he's the long term answer.
Defensively, he's serviceable. Offensively, he remains a liability. Fortunately, the team doesn't need much offense.
Dexter Pittman is probably on his last leg with the team. He joined with great promise, yet hasn't quite panned out. We've seen slight progress, but the time has come to sink or swim. Heat fans can expect to see Pittman develop into a more credible option as the year wears on. Based on offensive ability, don't be surprised to see him crack the starting lineup before the New Year. Whether he stays or not remains to be seen.
Josh Harrelson enters the center picture as a question mark. His days with the Knicks didn't provide many answers, neither did this year's preseason stint.
Harrelson is a wide body who could clog up the middle, but doesn't do enough offensively or defensively to truly make a difference. Highly unlikely we see a major contribution on this front.
Team Center Grade: D+
Overall, the Miami Heat will enter the season far deeper than any of us can remember. Considering the bolstered rosters around the league, this couldn't have come at a better time. No predictions just yet, but one promise we can all make with great assurance: It's gonna be another interesting year for the Miami Heat!
Let the journey begin...