LeBron James and the Miami Heat finished the 2012-13 NBA season on top, but did so by only the slimmest of margins. That has to be encouraging for a number of other contenders who'll do their best to gear up this summer to make another run at the champs.
The league now knows that the Heat are vulnerable in a couple of key areas. They struggle against elite size in the paint and can be beaten with rapid, decisive ball movement that exploits their hyper-aggressive traps on defense. Isolation offense doesn't work, and teams generally need multiple playmakers and at least two shooters to space the floor.
You'll note that, in many ways, the recipe for beating the Heat mirrors the broader trends sweeping across the league in response to overloaded defenses and smaller lineups.
The further we get from Miami's title celebration, the more people will appreciate how dominant the Heat's championship season was. After 66 wins and a massive 27-game victory streak in the regular season, people might start to forget how many close calls there were in the postseason.
The Heat needed a full seven games to defeat the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals and were mere seconds from falling to the Spurs in six games. Front offices across the NBA watched those series and are likely already hard at work hoping to be the ones to dethrone the Heat in 2014.
The first thing the San Antonio Spurs need to do this offseason to position themselves to knock off the Heat is to spend all of training camp going over how to play the final 5.2 seconds of a finals game. If they had been able to nail down that tiny detail in Game 6, we'd be talking about how the rest of the league was going to make changes to defeat them.
Seriously, though, there's nothing the Spurs actually need to do. They were every bit as good as the Heat in the finals, and if not for one or two tough breaks, there would soon be a fifth championship banner hanging in the AT&T Center rafters.
Tim Duncan protects the rim; the ball flies around on offense (a perfect way to attack the Heat's blitzing style) and there are always multiple three-point threats on the floor. Last year's roster was ideally constructed to beat the Heat.
San Antonio has to decide whether it wants to bring Manu Ginobili back into the fold in free agency, as well as how much to pay him. In typical Spurs form, expect him to accept a massive discount to stick around. The same is probably going to be true of Tiago Splitter.
But even if San Antonio drops upward of $20 million on Ginobili and Splitter in 2013-14 salary, it will still have about $10 million to spend before it hits the luxury tax line. Imagine how dangerous the Spurs would be if they also brought in someone like David West or Paul Millsap.
It should go without saying that a team that came as close to the title as the Spurs did won't need to make many changes. But for anyone concerned about the decline of the Big Three due to age, keep in mind that the growth of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green should more than offset whatever reduction in productivity the Spurs' older players might suffer.
All San Antonio really needs to do is hope they enjoy some slightly better luck next year; they're already as good as the Heat.
Before saying anything else, I recognize that calling the New York Knicks a "contender" is a stretch. They're a deeply flawed team that might not even be able to make many positive changes because of their roster and salary commitments.
Still, they're a playoff team with star players and big ambitions. They barely belong among these other teams, but a quick mention doesn't hurt.
In theory, the Knicks already have a number of the necessary elements to compete with the Heat. The only problem is that each of those qualities comes with a sizable caveat.
Tyson Chandler is an elite defensive anchor when healthy, but his track record (and the neck injury that turned him into a ghost last year) doesn't bode well for his future. Plus, he's hardly the kind of offensive weapon down low that gives the Heat trouble.
Stylistically, there's a lot to like about the Knicks; when they penetrate, move the ball and shoot off the catch, they're as dangerous an offense as there is. But they rarely sustain the kind of unselfish play that maximizes their shooting prowess.
Plus, coach Mike Woodson endured a troubling string of games during which he seemed unable to get his team to ditch its isolation-heavy attack in the playoffs.
If the Knicks can find a way to share the ball, bomb threes and hide Amar'e Stoudemire on defense, they'll be better off. Realistically, though, this is a team that can't compete with the Heat right now and can't get out from under some awful contracts for a couple of years.
If the Memphis Grizzlies can add a little depth and another couple of perimeter shooters, they'll be ready to move into the upper echelon of championship contenders.
Even with a painfully short bench and a dearth of outside snipers, Memphis won a pair of playoff series before falling to the vastly superior Spurs. But to beat those same Spurs—and, theoretically, the Heat—Memphis has to use its limited cap space wisely this summer.
Ideally, Memphis will replace Tony Allen (an unrestricted free agent) and Jerryd Bayless (who seems likely to use his opt-out clause after a solid postseason) with some combination of outside shooting and passable defensive chops.
In terms of the former, Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick are both on the market, while Dorell Wright might provide the latter. Assuming Bayless opts out, the Grizz should have about $13 million to spend. If they use that money wisely, a major improvement could be in the cards.
From a game-planning standpoint, Memphis is in good shape. The Grizzlies boasted the league's second-best defense last year, and they have the size inside to shut down the paint. Plus, Conley is quick enough to stretch Miami's traps to their limit (much like a healthy Tony Parker did in the early stages of the finals).
The Grizzlies are close.
The Chicago Bulls lasted just five games against the Heat this past postseason, largely because they simply lacked the scoring punch to compete. With Tom Thibodeau in charge, Chicago is always going to be a defense-first outfit.
But offensive help is on the way.
With Derrick Rose back on the court, the Bulls immediately regain their lost offensive credibility. Remember, Chicago posted an offensive rating of 104.5 in 2011-12 that was good enough for fifth in the NBA. Combined with an unparalleled toughness and an elite D, the Bulls could pose a legitimate challenge to the Heat next season.
Key areas of improvement this summer include perimeter shooting (noticing a trend yet?) and depth in the backcourt. The way the Heat attack point guards, Rose is going to need a capable backup to spell him occasionally.
Chicago is almost totally capped out, so outside help of any significance is only going to arrive if the Bulls free up money by amnestying Carlos Boozer and/or declining the $5 million option on Rip Hamilton.
Otherwise, the team will be left with only a mid-level exception to find what it needs.
Still, Jimmy Butler appears ready to take the next step, the frontcourt trio of Joakim Noah, Boozer and Taj Gibson are as formidable as any in the league, and Rose should add the type of offensive dynamism the team lacked last year.
If the Bulls want to be the team to dethrone the Heat, they'll need to find a way to pair at least a little bit of offense with their trademark defense.
This team was the No. 1 seed in the East the last time Rose was healthy. With the right tweaks, that could happen again.
Unlike some of the other teams included here, the Golden State Warriors don't really need to make stylistic tweaks or major roster moves in order to become bigger threats to the Heat. Instead, they need their key players to stay healthy and a bit of development from their young core.
In a strange way, a fully healthy version of the team combines a lot of what made both the Spurs and Indiana Pacers dangerous to the Heat. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Dubs have the elite perimeter shooting that helped the Spurs do damage. And in Andrew Bogut, Golden State has a pretty good Roy Hibbert impersonator.
Obviously, the health of Curry and Bogut is critical. But if the two of them hold up, there's a lot to like about the way they could challenge the Heat. And then there's Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green.
Barnes, Golden State's golden child, showed the world he was ready to make a leap during the postseason. The rookie averaged 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds during the playoffs, flashing the kind of athleticism and poise that figure to make him a star in the near future.
If he becomes someone to whom defenses have to pay constant attention, Curry and Thompson will get even more open looks.
Green's development is important because he's the team's best body to toss at James. The Michigan State product lacks a position, shot the ball horribly last season and doesn't have much in the athleticism department. But despite all that, he was the Warriors' most versatile, feisty and clever defender.
If he can improve his three-point stroke to a respectable level, he'll see major minutes throughout the season and particularly during matchups with the Heat.
Because of the way they fell apart without Russell Westbrook, it's easy to forget that the Oklahoma City Thunder were regarded as the Heat's biggest challenger for the vast majority of the season.
With a healthy Westbrook and another year of experience, the Thunder will be right back in that same position next season. Of course, a couple of minor improvements could certainly help in that effort.
For starters, Scott Brooks' offense absolutely has to feature something besides alternating isolation attacks from Kevin Durant and Westbrook. And no, Scotty, the occasional dribble handoff between the two doesn't count as diversity.
Brooks' lack of creativity was badly exposed after Westbrook went down, and the overmatched coach could never adjust on the fly. In some ways, that embarrassment might turn out to be a good thing. Perhaps Brooks will actually draw up a few sets this summer.
From a talent perspective, OKC has what it needs. Durant is the closest thing the league has to James, Westbrook is the kind of backcourt athlete that could destroy the Heat's traps, and Serge Ibaka is a solid foil for Bosh.
If OKC wants to take the next step, it'll have to embrace the same small-ball approach the Heat did this past season. That means no more minutes for the woefully ineffective Kendrick Perkins and a lot more of Durant at power forward.
In addition, the Thunder will have to replace Kevin Martin (an unrestricted free agent) with a capable bench scorer—preferably one who isn't a total defensive liability.
The Thunder were a finals team two years ago. With more experience, a little lineup tweak and the league's second-best player, they'll be ready to give the Heat a run.
Perhaps, no team's future is as uncertain as the Los Angeles Clippers' right now. If Chris Paul comes back and the team can turn whatever limited cap space it has into a viable bench player or two, the Clips will be in good shape.
In other positive news, whoever ends up coaching this team will represent an immediate upgrade over the comically overwhelmed Vinny Del Negro, whose contract wasn't renewed. But with Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan as potential trade candidates, it's hard to get a feel for how this team is going to look next season. With any luck, it could be right back in the top half of the West.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the roster, the best way to look at what the Clippers must do to challenge the Heat is to focus on their style of play.
Under Del Negro, the Clips essentially put the ball in Paul's hands and asked him to orchestrate the offense. The result was a heavy diet of predictable pick-and-roll sets and precious little movement of the ball from the strong side to the weak side.
Put simply, the Heat would eat that offensive strategy alive. Miami would simply blitz Paul and force the ball out of his hands, stalling the offense before it could even get started. Such a strong reliance on the pick-and-roll, without having counters or fallback options, is never going to work.
Regardless of who ends up filling out the Clips roster, more offensive versatility is a must.
If you thought including the Knicks was a stretch...
By virtue of their embarrassing first-round playoff exit, the Los Angeles Lakers are nowhere near the level of any of the other teams here. Still, the potential star power of the roster makes them an interesting study in novel ways to attack the Heat.
Hypothetically, if Kobe Bryant can return at something close to full health, Dwight Howard re-signs, Pau Gasol plays like he did down the stretch, and the team finds capable shooters to man the perimeter, this is a team that should improve in its second full season together.
In Howard, the Lakers have exactly the type of mobile, imposing big man that bothers the Heat. And in Gasol, L.A. has a second skilled big man who could help keep the ball moving over the top of Miami's scrambling defense.
Before anyone pipes up about how a dual-big system can't work against the Heat's small-ball approach, remember: The Pacers did just fine with both Hibbert and West on the floor. Howard and Gasol could do the same.
If the Lakers' size can dominate the boards, creating second opportunities at the rim and via kick-out passes, the Heat could find themselves facing the same problems they did against the Pacers. And with Steve Nash filling the spot-up role, open looks generated by offensive rebounds could be deadly.
Look, the Lakers are miles away from competing right now. But if Howard comes back and Mike D'Antoni doesn't spend a second year undermining players' confidence and tinkering with the team's style, there's a good chance that L.A.'s size and veteran experience could give the Heat some trouble.
The Spurs might have come the closest to beating the Heat, but the Pacers are the bigger threat heading into next season.
That's because the relatively young core of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and George Hill still has room to grow. In addition, the team has just $48 million committed to next year's salary. So even after re-signing West, there will be plenty of money to bolster one of the worst benches in the NBA.
And that's precisely where the Pacers must improve if they want to take the Heat's crown.
When the five-man unit of Hill, Lance Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert was on the court, Indiana flat-out dominated the Heat in the postseason. That group posted an offensive rating of 109.5 and a defensive rating of 96.8.
If that doesn't paint a clear enough picture, think of it this way: That unit's overall differential of plus-12.6 points per 100 possessions would have easily been the NBA's best during the regular season. What makes it so incredible in this context is that the five-man group accumulated those stats against a Heat team that won the NBA title.
There is no better five-man unit than the Pacers' starting five. And it's not even close.
Assuming Indy has to give West something like the $10 million annual salary he made last season, the team will have something like $13 million to find two or three capable backups.
If the Pacers keep Danny Granger around—and he returns to something approximating full health—that money could go a very long way.
D.J. Augustin is gone, so a backup point guard is going to be a high priority. Jarrett Jack, Devin Harris or Jerryd Bayless would look pretty good coming off Indy's bench. But there are loads of other options. All the Pacers have to do to beat Miami is find a couple of average bench contributors; the organic growth of the current roster will take care of the rest.
Unless noted otherwise, stats are courtesy of ESPN and NBA.com, and salary information is courtesy of HoopsHype.