Biggest Threats to LeBron James and Miami Heat After Free Agency

Sam Richmond@srichmond93Correspondent IJuly 19, 2013

Biggest Threats to LeBron James and Miami Heat After Free Agency

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    It sure won't be easy for LeBron James and the Miami Heat to pull off the elusive three-peat.

    Miami is obviously the favorite to win it all in 2014. But, with all of the big free-agent happenings done with, it's clear there are more teams capable of dethroning Miami next year than there were this season.

    That's scary for the Heat, considering there are some serious contenders that did little to nothing in terms of improving their team this offseason..

    Let's go over the top five threats to the Heat, which is a mix of teams that made a lot of moves during free agency and those that stood pat.  

6. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets have improved perhaps more than any other team this offseason.

    By trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Nets will trot out a starting lineup on opening day that boasts five all-stars. 

    It's not just their outstanding collection of starters that makes them a real threat in the East. Brooklyn has also put together a legitimate bench.  

    The Nets also squeezed out Jason Terry in the Garnett and Pierce deal, and also signed Andrei Kirilenko and re-signed Andray Blatche for contracts below their market value. 

    However, there are still some questions about this team.

    Jason Kidd has absolutely no head-coaching experience. It's a risky move by the Nets to make these type of  "all-in" trades and signings in a season in which they have a first-year coach. He was obviously an outstanding player, but we simply don't know if that will translate into head-coaching success. 

    On top of that, the Nets probably look a little bit better on paper than they will actually be. Garnett and Pierce, while still valuable players, can't play heavy minutes or perform at the level that they each could five years ago. 

    Plus, considering the injury history of their starting five, keeping all of those guys out there at the same time should be a concern.

    If everything breaks right for Brooklyn, this team could be one of the Heat's top threats, but there is certainly potential for things to go left. 

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers have had an excellent offseason after a disappointing first-round exit in the 2013 playoffs.

    They re-signed Chris Paul, which was a must. They made perhaps as big of a coaching upgrade as one can make, going from the inept Vinny Del Negro to Doc Rivers.

    While those were the big, headline-grabbing moves, that's far from all the Clippers did this offseason.

    The Clips turned point guard Eric Bledsoe, who was more of a luxury than a necessity, and the aging Caron Butler into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. The Clippers needed some shooters, and few in the NBA are more proficient from outside than Dudley and Redick.

    There were also the discounts the Clippers managed to get on re-signing the always underrated Matt Barnes (three years for $11 million) and signing Darren Collison ($1.9 million annually).

    This isn't to say the Clips had a perfect offseason. It would have really benefited Los Angeles if they had been able to pry Kevin Garnett away from the Boston Celtics before he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Having to play DeAndre Jordan late in games is not ideal for Los Angeles.

    Still, the Clippers did enough to put themselves among the few teams that can truly compete for a title.

4. Indiana Pacers

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    The 2012-13 Indiana Pacers took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, which is quite admirable when you consider just how awful their bench was.

    Comparing the Heat and the Pacers: Every Indiana starter averaged more than 35 minutes per game in the 2013 playoffs while only one Heat starter, James, topped that mark. It's not a coincidence that after a grueling first six games of the series, Indiana couldn't hang with Miami in the finale. Their players were worn down.

    That shouldn't be as much of an issue this season for Indiana. The Pacers upgraded George Hill's backup from D.J. Augustin to C.J. Watson and added forward Chris Copeland, who was really impressive in his rookie year with the New York Knicks

    Combining that new-found bench depth with an emerging star player in Paul George and Roy Hibbert, who really came into his own in that series against the Heat, make the Pacers a very tough team.

3. Chicago Bulls

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    This ranking is primarily based on the assumption that Derrick Rose is "Derrick Rose" next year, which would figure to be the case, as Rose recently declared his health to be "100 percent."

    The Chicago Bulls didn't make any big splashes in free agency (their most noteworthy signee is Mike Dunleavy), but that doesn't matter a whole lot if Rose returns to pre-injury form. 

    The combination of Rose and coach Tom Thibodeau is one to fear.

    Thibodeau is a defensive genius. The fact that the Rose-less and banged-up Bulls were able to make it to the second round in the 2013 playoffs speaks to that. 

    Plus, the Bulls have some real talent to support Rose. For Thibodeau's defensive system to work so well, he needs players capable of executing it. With guys like Joakim Noah and the improving Jimmy Butler in the fold, Thibodeau and the Bulls have players who are more than capable.

    At the end of the day, though, this team's success hinges on Rose. Chicago will only go as far as Rose will take them. I expect that to be pretty far, as I have the Bulls as being the Heat's top threat in the Eastern Conference.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    In typical fashion, the San Antonio Spurs have had a quite offseason.

    They re-signed Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili and made a couple of smart, but not big-impact, signings with Marco Belinelli and Jeff Pendergraph.

    While the Spurs overpaid for Ginobili out of respect, the idea of bringing back the gang for another go around is a smart one. We can't forget the Spurs were five seconds away from winning a championship.

    Yes, Tim Duncan will be a year older next season, but I'm betting on Duncan until he gives us a reason not to. 

    The Spurs still have a superstar in Tony Parker, who emerged as arguably the best point guard in the league last season.

    On top of that, the 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard is likely to improve this year, which is quite scary, considering a strong case can be made that Leonard would have won Finals MVP had the Spurs held on against the Heat.

    It often feels like the Spurs will just never go away, and next year should be no different.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have had a rough offseason.

    The Thunder had to sit around and watch the top of the Western Conference get stronger, as the Houston Rockets added Dwight Howard and the Golden State Warriors added Andre Iguodala. And, at the same time, Oklahoma City worsened, losing their sixth man, Kevin Martin.

    Still, the Thunder are to be feared. I think that too many people are forgetting just how good this Oklahoma City team was before Russell Westbrook's injury in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.

    The Thunder won 60 games in the 2012-13 regular season with an average point differential of plus-9.7. Not only was that the best point differential in the league, but it was 1.3 points also better than the champion Heat. That isn't something to just gloss over, either. Simply put, the Thunder were really, really good before Westbrook went down.

    While losing Martin hurts, it's not as if he's anything close to a big-impact player. Jeremy Lamb has been quite impressive in summer league play and can help fill the void left by Martin.

    More than any other major American sports league, the NBA is a "players league." OKC has the unquestioned second-best player in the league in Kevin Durant and another top-10 player in Westbrook. This is the team to beat in the West.