Highlighted by their championship run, The Miami Heat had an incredibly successful 2012. Will the year 2013 bring about as much glory?
Even though playing well from the very start of the year and dominating the remainder of the 2012-13 regular season would be great for the Heat, Miami's success in the new year will be defined by its postseason play.
Simply put, the Heat have to win a championship or their season will be looked at as a failure.
So, will they come out on top?
Let's answer that and take a look at what else will happen in 2013 for the Heat.
It's not as if when the Heat signed big man Josh Harrellson back in September that it was expected he would have a sizable role on this team; however, it was thought that he would have, you know, a role.
Harrellson has made only four appearances through 29 games. That's as many as Dexter Pittman.
That's a bit mind-boggling, considering what Harrellson brings to the table.
He's a 6'10" center that can knock down the long ball (shot 33.9 percent on three-point attempts with the New York Knicks last season), and would really be able to help spread the floor.
On top of that, he's a very good rebounder. The Heat desperately need rebounding help (they rank 29th in team rebounds this season) and Harrellson grabbed 9.6 boards per 36 minutes of action in 2011-12.
With Harrellson excelling specifically in those two areas, rebounding and three-point shooting, it's only a matter of time before head coach Erik Spoelstra starts to give him some minutes.
LeBron James is a career 33.4 percent shooter from the outside; however, you wouldn't get that impression from watching him play this season.
After taking a career low in three-point attempts last season (2.4 per game), LeBron has embraced the three-ball and is having more success than ever. LBJ has knocked down 41.7 percent of his attempts beyond the arc, which ranks 10th in the league among forwards.
While this excellent outside game seems to have come from out of nowhere, LeBron actually showed great improvement in his three-point shooting last season when he converted at a career-high 36.2 percent rate.
Like his career average suggests, LeBron may not finish the season at or above 41.7 percent. However, with 29 games now in the books, LeBron's excellent shooting can't simply be deemed a hot start. LeBron appears more willing and comfortable to make defenses pay when they give him space from downtown.
His three-point shot has been improving for some time, and now it's the best it's ever been. Expect him to continue to prove that all season long.
Dwyane Wade had a rough November in which he scored 17.1 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent from downtown. This stretch of non-elite play led many to question Wade's ability at 30-years old.
But Wade responded to his critics by having an excellent December. The leg issues that were a problem for him in November seemed to disappear as Wade's explosiveness resurfaced. He finished the month with 22.1 points per game on an absurd 54.7 percent shooting from the field and a solid 33.3 percent on shots beyond the arc.
To gives his critics a bit of a pass here: there was still a sour taste in their mouths after the 2012 postseason in which Wade struggled at times. However, it needs to be noted that he was playing through injury then, just like he was in November.
As his play in December proved once again: When Wade's healthy, there should be no question regarding whether or not he's an elite NBA player.
Wade will likely get dinged up every once in a while and have a couple of not-so-great performances, but excluding those times, expect to see the athletic, efficient and dominant Wade that is an excellent No. 2 alongside LeBron.
Perhaps on other teams, Rashard Lewis' offensive talent would be enough to earn him some valuable playing time.
But on the loaded-with-shooters Heat, Lewis, despite shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 47.4 percent on three-point attempts, has made just two appearances totaling 10 minutes in the Heat's previous 10 games.
While Lewis actually was a rotation player for Miami at the start of the season, he was replaced by Joel Anthony. The reasoning behind that decision is very clear; Lewis is a poor defender and an absolutely horrific rebounder.
Despite having a 6'10" frame, Lewis is averaging just 4.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. To put that in perspective, Udonis Haslem averages more than double that.
Also, Lewis's defensive ability was a contributing factor to the Heat ranking as statistically one of the league's worst defensive teams for much of November. Now without Lewis in the rotation, the Heat have allowed under 100 points in nine of their last 11 games that have ended in regulation.
Lewis is basically a one-trick pony at this point, and that just won't cut it in Miami. It makes plenty of sense for a guy like Harrellson to enter the rotation before Lewis reenters it.
The small-ball Heat are 21-8 and are atop the Eastern Conference, so it's safe to say things are going pretty well for Miami. However, their new style has exacerbated their rebounding issues that have been prevalent since last season.
As previously mentioned, the Heat rank 29th in rebounding, and unfortunately Spoelstra doesn't have a lot of options to try to improve that. The Heat just aren't constructed to rebound well, and that has resulted in some pretty bizarre games.
On Dec. 18, The Heat were out-rebounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves by a staggering total of 29, and on Dec. 31 the Orlando Magic's Nikola Vucevic almost grabbed more boards than the entire Heat team (33 for Vucevic and 29 for Miami).
While Miami won both of those games, it's a dangerous way to play when you consider the Heat could face a team such as the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA Finals that could really make them pay.
The Heat would be wise to give themselves some insurance by adding a useful big guy like Kenyon Martin in case such a playoff series takes place.
The 2012 MVP race is already shaping up to be a two-man race between Kevin Durant and James.
Durant has cemented himself as the league's second-best player, currently averaging 28.5 points on an excellent 51.3 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent from beyond the arc, while also adding eight rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals per contest.
On the other hand you have LeBron, a three-time MVP. LBJ is having potentially the best season of his incredible career, averaging 26.3 points on 54.4 percent shooting and 41.7 percent on three-pointers, 8.4 rebounds (would be career high), seven assists, .9 blocks and 1.6 steals.
While it's very close, LeBron is still having the better season. Even with Durant having a dominant offensive season, LeBron stills tops him and everyone else in the league in PER at 30.03. LeBron also leads the league in EWA (estimated wins added) at 10.8.
Expect LeBron and Durant to continue to have tremendously efficient offensive seasons and plenty of team success. However, LeBron is still the better all-around player, a likely Defensive Player of the Year candidate which Durant is far from, and that should allow him to claim his fourth MVP in just five seasons.
Throughout the first two seasons of the Big Three era, the Heat were always known as a "defensive team". The Heat prided themselves on winning in ugly fashion, and finished fifth in defensive rating in 2010-11 and fourth in 2011-12.
But with Miami embracing small-ball, that defensive dominance was no longer there to begin the 2012-13 season. While the lack of a true center has allowed the Heat to spread the floor and has helped turn them into an offensive juggernaut, it's hindered their ability to protect the rim.
Winning ugly no longer, the Heat's defense currently ranks 18th in the league.
Still, as mentioned when discussing Lewis earlier, the Heat's defense has greatly improved since Anthony has entered the rotation in December. In November, Heat opponents averaged 99.8 points per game. In December, Miami held their opponents to 96.3 points per contest.
If the Heat had given up 96.3 points per game since the start of the season, their defense would currently rank just outside the top 10.
The Heat are clearly putting much more an emphasis on defense than they were to begin 2012, and as the season progresses, and the team rounds more into playoff form, expect it only to get emphasized more.
Miami's poor November has essentially prevented it from finishing near the level it did defensively in the previous two seasons, but expect the Heat to ramp it up enough to finish in the top 10.
At 21-8, the Heat are on pace to finish with 60 wins. That's a great season, but Miami can play well enough the rest of the way to finish even better.
With Wade again performing at an elite level, the early season defensive woes no longer an issue and LeBron as dominant as ever, the Heat are extremely formidable heading into the new year.
The Heat's only real big concern should be rebounding, but, as mentioned, that can be at least curbed with a cheap signing or trade. Plus, the Heat don't play in a conference with many high-impact centers. So as long as the Heat continue to defend well, the Heat should lose very few in-conference games.
Sixty four wins is asking a lot considering the Heat will have to win 43 of their final 53 to fulfill that, but they are the NBA's top team and will prove it in 2013.
With all of the Heat's postseason success during the Big Three Era, it's easy to forget that the Heat haven't entered the playoffs as the East's top seed in it. That will no longer be the case after this season.
Although it's just the beginning of 2013, it's safe to say there's really only one contender other than the Heat to win the East in the regular season: the New York Knicks.
The Boston Celtics (14-16) were considered a big threat to the Heat but have been a mess this season, and the East's top team from the previous two years, the Chicago Bulls (16-13), are far from a contender without Derrick Rose.
The Knicks on the other hand, behind Carmelo Anthony's best NBA season (current 25.85 PER), only trail the Heat by one game as the East's top team.
However, as improved as the Knicks are this season, expect the Heat to pull away from them. In fact, with the Knicks losing five of their last eight games, the Heat already are starting to.
Simply put, with their Big Three (which includes the game's best player), The Heat's top-tier talent is better than the Knicks'. Plus, the Heat have the luxury of playing in a horrific division (excluding the Atlanta Hawks). So while the Knicks have to routinely face-off against the likes of the Brooklyn Nets (16-15) and the still-decent Celtics, the Heat often get to match up against the Charlotte Bobcats (8-23) and Orlando Magic (12-19).
The Eastern Conference is undoubtedly weaker at the top than it was a year ago, and the Heat are going to take advantage of it and earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Sorry to the rest of the NBA, but LeBron and company are going to celebrate another title this summer.
At this point it seems almost certain Miami will have the easiest path to make it to the NBA Finals. The Heat are on pace to finish as the Eastern Conference's top team, which would guarantee them home-court advantage. That's a big deal for this Miami team, as they have won 14 of their 16 games at the AmericanAirlines Arena this season.
On top of that, as mentioned before, there just isn't a whole lot of competition in the East. The Heat are likely to breeze through the first two rounds and face the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals.
While the Knicks have beaten the Heat twice already this season, there's clearly a big difference in the Heat's regular-season defense and their playoff defense. Just like they did when giving maximum effort on the defensive end in the two team's playoff meeting last year, the Heat should be able to prevent the Knicks from beating them with their three-point attack.
The Western Conference is much more open with any number of teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, having the potential to face the Heat in the Finals. But still, as the Heat showed in the 2012 NBA Finals and at times this season: the Heat playing at their best is just a notch above everyone else.
The Miami Heat will be your 2013 NBA champions.