Reasons to Be Pessimistic About 3rd Straight Miami Heat Title
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Only four franchises in league history have had such a run of dominance: the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s, the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000s.
Miami does have many of the necessary pieces in place for such sustained excellence. With a strong team identity and multiple future Hall of Famers to lead the charge, the Heat have to be considered the odds-on favorites to win the title yet again next season.
But the league is getting stronger and the Heat are not improving in kind. Talent has coalesced among Miami's rivals for the title, and the three-peat bet is by no means a safe one.
Beasts in the East
For the first time since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, the top tier of the Eastern Conference is stacked.
The Indiana Pacers have already proven that these Heat can be pushed to the brink of elimination by a conference foe. There are now no fewer than four other challengers that could threaten the defending champs.
Now that the Brooklyn Nets have Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, their lineup features All-Stars at every position. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls get Derrick Rose back, the New York Knicks return a sharpshooting team that beat Miami three times last season, and those same Pacers are back with much-improved depth.
Even if none of those teams take down the Heat, the road to the NBA Finals will be that much more treacherous. Not only are they more likely to fall as early as the conference semis, but facing this competition early in the playoffs will be a strain later on.
The Return of Rose
The Chicago Bulls were perfectly equipped to pester teams last season, but without their star point guard, they had to ride or die with Nate Robinson on offense. If the Bulls couldn't beat their opponent into submission with their stifling defense, it wouldn't be pretty.
That's because Tom Thibodeau lacked the combination of grace and athleticism that Derrick Rose embodies. Over a year removed from an ACL tear, he's finally ready to lead a contender again.
Do you remember that the Bulls had the best record in the East back in 2012? That's what happens when you build your team around an MVP in his early 20s. If Rose can return to his previous form, Chicago will be significantly more dangerous offensively.
In fact, this Bulls team could put up the most points of the Thibodeau era. In addition to Rose and reliable standbys like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler has flashed potential as a major contributor and Mike Dunleavy gives Chicago some much-needed three-point shooting.
As if the Bulls defense wasn't enough, Miami will have fits trying to stop Rose and Co. on the other end.
Indy Keeps Improving
While the Indiana Pacers have their own returning star in Danny Granger, he is just one of many upgrades Indy added in the offseason.
The Pacers' starting five was a force last season, spearheading the league's most efficient defense along with balanced scoring in the half court. However, bench support with the likes of D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough was a major drop-off from George Hill and David West, particularly on the offensive end.
Now that Granger is healthy again, Indy's one-time star is now super substitute off the bench. Yet the Pacers were committed to bolstering the bench this summer, constructing a rotation that can now run 10 deep.
C.J. Watson gives Hill a reliable backup, which means the second unit will no longer be a rudderless ship. Though Hansbrough and his brute force are gone, Luis Scola will be able to keep up the post scoring off the bench, while Chris Copeland and Granger allow for a small-ball element as a change of pace.
Even as Indy nearly knocked out Miami, depth was its greatest weakness. Now it's a clear strength, one that gives them a more potent and varied attack than before.
Who Will Protect the Rim?
Aside from featuring the greatest assemblage of talent of their time, all of the three-peaters have touted staunch post defense.
The past two Heat winners have had just enough size to get by, but their stable of big men is incredibly shaky.
Chris Bosh is superb at jumping out on the pick-and-roll, but he's too slight to hold up as Miami's rim protector. Physical post scorers like Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan ate him alive this past postseason, forcing Miami to rely on uninspiring bench players to man the center position.
For all his dunking and shot-blocking, Chris Andersen is now 35 and is not a great on-ball defender. Greg Oden is Miami's lone seven-footer, but it's a total unknown how well he'll play and for how long he'll stay healthy. Udonis Haslem has a nifty mid-range jumper to keep the middle of the floor open, but he's only 6'8" and 33 years old himself.
And that's it. Miami doesn't have a good defensive center, let alone a great one. Now that guys like Hibbert and Brook Lopez have more talent around them, they'll be able to go wild against the Heat.
Back when the Big Three first assembled, there was the risk that such a top-heavy team could be derailed by injury. That holds true today as much as ever for the Heat.
Dwyane Wade's bruised knee and Chris Bosh's aching everything nearly ruined Miami's 2013 postseason, forcing LeBron to carry even more of the load on his shoulders. If not for Wade coming through late and Bosh still contributing on defense, the drawbacks would have been too severe to overcome.
Miami is now a year older and down a key playoff contributor in Mike Miller. The margin of error is slimmer than ever in that regard; considering Wade has a history of getting banged up and Bosh has enough trouble competing inside as is, any injury could be disastrous.
The best player in the world is capable of so many things on the court, but LeBron is already facing his strongest opposition yet. Against the loaded Eastern Conference, he might not be enough on his own—and if James gets hurt, the Heat are toast.
The Heat can fight through this, as they have done before. But in 2013-14, it's going to be harder than ever.