The Miami Heat should be favorites to win an NBA championship this season, even if they aren't currently the league's best team. So much of that has to do with the East, and how weak it is compared to the squads out West.
The Heat themselves also factor into this judgment. The defending champs are relieved of so much pressure playing in the lesser of the two conferences.
There are still road blocks ahead, though—five of which I've personally identified.
This Heat defense bears little resemblance to last year's stingy operation. Much of that has to do with transitioning Joel Anthony's minutes to more perimeter-savvy bench players.
Miami was especially poor on defense early in the season, when they were giving a lot of time to Rashard Lewis. Lewis spends more time riding the pine now, but Miami still suffers defensive lapses due to the presence of an aging Ray Allen.
Allen has been brilliant offensively, but Miami's challenge is to mitigate his defense en route to a title.
It would also help if Dwyane Wade got back in transition more.
The New York Knicks might be in a bit of a tailspin right now, but this remains a formidable challenge for the Heat. In their two meetings this season, New York won each game by 20 points.
Even if you wish to dismiss that as regular-season randomness, the Knicks prove challenging for another reason: Any team that shoots a ton of threes should be feared over the course of a series.
If New York is on fire from deep, that could trump anything else that happens in seven games. The Knicks attempt a league-leading 28.8 shots from distance per game.
When they're hitting at a good clip, you're cooked.
Though Chicago lost in five games to Miami back in 2011, the series was closer than "five games" would indicate. It actually took a near perfect storm of three-point makes from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to close out that fifth game.
If Rose can come back and incorporate himself into one of the league's best defensive attacks, the Bulls pose an actual threat to Miami.
The Heat's aforementioned spotty defense could be tested by Rose's speed.
The Oklahoma City Thunder lost in five games to the Heat last season, but much like Miami's five-game series against Chicago in 2011, this was a closer contest than its brevity would indicate. The Thunder are better this year, largely because Kevin Durant has improved by bounds and leaps.
KD is a better passer than he was last season and feels more comfortable controlling his team's offense. Russell Westbrook has gotten better as a distributor, and Serge Ibaka has substantially improved on offense.
Most of all, the biggest threat to Miami could well be a benching of Kendrick Perkins. Perkins killed OKC's chances against Miami, and the Thunder would fare better if Scott Brooks learns his lesson.
It's not just Oklahoma City. The Western Conference is so good and so deep that it presents a few possible challenges to the Heat.
The Memphis Grizzlies have beaten Miami twice this season. Their size and perimeter defense match up well against the Heat's undersized, perimeter-oriented attack.
The Clippers have also had recent success against the Heat, and could theoretically beat anyone in a series on account of their incredible depth.
San Antonio attacks Miami's weakness with a spread floor and three-point snipers.
In general, almost any team from this conference should give the Heat a tough series.