But what if you had to bet on the winner of the 2014 NBA Finals, and you could only pick one of two options: the Heat, or everyone else? What do you do?
Fellow Featured Columnist Stephen Babb and I got together to answer that question.
After you read both arguments, be sure to vote in the poll at the bottom of the page. And remember, you won't just be voting for which case makes the most sense. You'll also be making a judgment on which of us is a better human being.
Grant Hughes Takes the Field
If you asked me to bet my life on one NBA team to win a ring next season, the first thing I’d do is ask questions like “Why are you such a monster?” and “Can I please just bet money instead?”
The second thing I’d do is pick the Heat. That doesn’t mean I’d take them ahead of the field, though. And that’s a crucial distinction.
Playing the Odds
The consensus—which, in my opinion, is pretty much accurate—seems to say that the Heat are 2-1 favorites to win the 2013-14 NBA title. After that widely held conclusion, though, things get a bit more unsettled. Based on my own gut and the collected opinions of professional handicappers, here’s how I’d peg the odds for the top five contenders:
|Oklahoma City Thunder||5-1|
Outside of the top five, there are a half-dozen other teams that could win a title without remotely shocking anyone. It wouldn’t be a stunner if the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs or Memphis Grizzlies hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June, would it?
But by asking me to take the Heat over the field, you’re basically forcing me to throw logic out the window. And that’s a very rude thing to do to logic.
Think about it: If I pick the Heat and LeBron James gets hurt, I’m screwed. But if I take the field, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Paul George and Dwight Howard could all go down with season-ending injuries in the first quarter on opening night, and I’d still have 25 other teams with a theoretical chance to make me a winner.
The Heat will probably be the best team in the NBA next season, but I’d much rather play the odds.
More Vulnerable Than You Remember
Even if we think about this question without such dramatic hypotheticals, it’s still a total no-brainer to take the field.
Last season, the Heat put together one of the most dominant regular seasons in NBA history. They won 66 games during the year, including 27 in a row from Feb. 3 to March 25. They posted a regular-season per-game differential of plus-7.9 points while James turned in one of the best individual campaigns in NBA history.
Yet when the Indiana Pacers pushed them to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat looked vulnerable. And when the San Antonio Spurs were mere seconds away from closing out the finals in Game 6, everybody on earth thought the Heat were finished.
Miami has the hardware now, but there were moments last season when its second straight championship was very much in doubt.
This year, the Heat return every major piece of their title-winning roster except for Mike Miller. In one sense, that’s a positive, as that collection of players was good enough to get the job done last season.
But in another sense, Miami’s static roster is a real problem.
Many of the league’s other top contenders made key improvements: Chicago has Rose back; Indiana got a bench and will have a healthier version of Danny Granger; the Nets are suddenly a fantasy team; D12 is in Houston. And then there’s the Thunder, who might have been good enough to beat Miami last year if Russell Westbrook hadn’t gone down with a freak knee injury.
Yet the Heat stood still.
Maybe James will somehow take his game to another level in 2013-14. If that happens, perhaps the Heat will improve enough to keep pace with the other top title-seekers.
But what if Dwyane Wade can’t reverse his obvious downward slide? What if Shane Battier and Ray Allen can’t match the modest production they gave last season? And what if James is “only” as good as he was in 2013-14?
If anything goes wrong for Miami next year, its chances at a three-peat take a major hit.
I want to make this abundantly clear: I think the Heat have the best chance to win an NBA title next year. That’s not a controversial opinion; every relevant oddsmaker agrees.
Don't look at this as a bet against the Heat. Look at it as a bet on the Thunder, Bulls, Pacers, Rockets and everyone else.
If given the choice, I’m taking the field without thinking twice. It just makes sense.
Stephen Babb Takes the Heat
Odds and Endings
Could this already be the end of the Heat dynasty as we've briefly known it?
Let's bracket aside the endless list of eventualities that could haunt Miami. After all, Murphy's Law cuts both ways as the San Antonio Spurs learned last season upon advancing past the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers and drawing the Grizzlies in the conference finals (largely on account of those Grizzlies having just dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder sans Russell Westbrook).
Treating all else equal—or at least pending the flukiest of catastrophic injuries—I'm still taking the Heat. It's been a while since we've had a good three-peat on our hands. Here's how I see the best of the contending field stacking up:
|San Antonio Spurs||6-1|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||10-1|
|Golden State Warriors||10-1|
While much-improved squads like the Nets or Rockets could enter the discussion, there's not enough of a proven track record to convince me either team has title-worthy chemistry.
The Clippers reason to be better too under Doc Rivers, but there remains something to be desired from Blake Griffin's postseason pedigree. These guys will be under a lot of pressure this time around after coming up short in 2012 and 2013.
Miami's current roster (plus Mike Miller) was good enough to win it all last season, but the real takeaway to me is that this same unit will continue improving after yet another year spent working together under Erik Spoelstra. It's the same reason the Spurs retained such a fighting chance after bowing out to OKC in 2012.
The longer a group remains together, the better it understands how to execute the game plan. Without that execution, talent doesn't count for much—especially in the postseason. Call it chemistry or synergy or institutional knowledge, but there's nothing intangible about knowing how to do your job.
Though there are certainly examples of cobbled-together rosters coming out of nowhere (the Dallas Mavericks in 2011), there are far more in which teams that stayed together went on to do great things. That includes the 2012 Heat, who didn't panic after losing to those Mavericks.
Miami's chemistry has already become one of its hallmarks, a fact about which we're reminded with every fast break. Leaving it intact should ensure Miami keeps pace with the teams still trying to find theirs.
The Best of the West
The Pacers, Bulls and Nets have indeed given us reason to believe in vastly improved upper echelons of the Eastern Conference. But it's hard to imagine Miami's road to the finals being harder than what its counterpart faces out West.
With teams like the Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors, Clippers and Nuggets likely rounding out the top seven spots not occupied by San Antonio and OKC, there's a disparity in the kind of first-round matchups Eastern and Western conference contenders face.
Even without Kobe, the 2012-13 Lakers were scarier than the Bucks.
Assuming Miami makes it out of the East, it will face the product of a difficult postseason march—the kind that leaves other teams taxed and banged up. That likely would have been the case last season had a healthy OKC team made it to the conference finals instead of those Grizzlies.
Who's Winning the 2014 NBA Title?
As for making it out of the East, Chicago becomes the best bet to unseat Miami thanks to Rose's return. The problem is that these are still pretty much the same Bulls that lost to pretty much this same Heat team 4-1 in 2011.
Though role players have changed, it's hard to argue Chicago's gotten the better of those changes. Love Jimmy Butler all you want (and should), but this Miami team is significantly deeper than its 2011 edition with Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen and now Greg Oden.
Though the Bulls and Pacers are good enough defensive teams to make him work, the problem is that Miami's an exceptional defensive team in its own right. When games slow to a crawl, LeBron becomes the difference-maker—alternatively facilitating, driving or shooting Miami out of a stalemate.
For the differences between James and MJ, that's the thing they have in common, the reason winning so many rings becomes easier than it should be. A player who can do so many things—and always makes the right decision about which one to do—isn't just an MVP. He's a qualitatively different kind of value, and one that no combination of mere mortals can nullify.