Can LeBron James and the Miami Heat three-peat?
For the second consecutive year, the Miami Heat will enter the NBA season on top of the world. Coming off back-to-back championships, the Heat look to join an exclusive list of five teams that have three-peated over the course of history.
Of course, doing so will not be easy.
In a rapidly improving Eastern Conference, Miami will absolutely need to bring its "A" game if it wants to see a third straight title come to fruition. The Heat will also need to remain healthy, and they may need more contributions from role players than ever before.
So, what's in for LeBron James and company in 2013-14?
Let's take a look back at what they did in 2012-13 and then delve into what to expect this season.
- Record: 66-16
- Southeast Division champions
- No. 1 seed in Eastern Conference
- NBA champions
Key Stats: The Good and Bad
The Heat were an absolutely dominant force offensively last season. Miami ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency, averaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions (according to ESPN's Hollinger Stats). Judging by the fact that they also posted an insane true shooting percentage of 58.8 percent and that they are led by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, that should come as a surprise to no one.
If Miami can maintain that level of superb offensive basketball in 2013-14, they are once again going to be exceedingly difficult to top in a seven-game series.
Still, what makes the Heat's outstanding output offensively more bearable for opponents is the fact that they don't rebound very well.
Miami placed dead last in rebounding last season, and that ineptness on the boards nearly cost it a playoff series against the Indiana Pacers. With the rest of the conference getting better (and bigger), the Heat must improve on the glass in 2013-14.
Biggest Camp Storylines
While the Heat were predominantly quiet throughout most of the offseason, they did make two rather low-risk, high-reward moves in signing Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. The main question for Miami this camp will be, can Oden and Beasley do enough to become integral parts of what the Heat want to do?
In the case of Oden, the thing that has held him back is injuries. This is a guy who has had five (yes; five) knee surgeries and hasn't played in an NBA game since Dec. 5, 2009. That's nearly four years ago.
Can Oden somehow become a force for Miami despite missing all of that time? It remains to be seen, but he has shown he can be productive when healthy. The 25-year-old owns career averages of 9.4 points and 7.7 rebounds in 22.1 minutes a contest.
As far as Beasley is concerned, it's more about his off-the-court problems than anything else.
Beasley was waived by the Phoenix Suns (per the Suns team website) in early September shortly after being arrested for possession of marijuana (per the Scottsdale Police Department). It was not the first time Beasley had dabbled with marijuana, and Phoenix decided it was best to cut ties with the former No. 2 draft pick (it's not like Beasley was tearing up the court with the Suns, either).
Now, Beasley is back in Miami where his NBA started, and he hopes to show the world that he can play.
There is absolutely no question that the 24-year-old still has talent. He just has never been able to fully harness it, nor has he been able to keep his head in the game. Perhaps Miami is the perfect environment for the Kansas State product, as he will be around a bunch of veterans who have been to the mountaintop and back.
At this point, Beasley knows that he essentially has no choice but to produce and stay in his team's good graces. Any more missteps, and he could find himself out of the NBA completely.
It will certainly be interesting to see how he looks in training camp and preseason.
Narratives To Follow This Season
There are two burning questions that will follow the Heat around all season long. The first one is whether or not they can three-peat.
Miami isn't looking to win 70 games. It isn't looking to set any kinds of statistical records. It is looking to win a third straight championship (although doing those other things along with capturing another title would be nice).
The good news for the Heat is, by now, there is no more real pressure on them. No matter what they do this season, their run will be looked upon as very successful, and it will likely not be judged on LeBron's "not five, not six, not seven..." proclamation from the summer of 2010.
So, Miami can go into the 2013-14 campaign with a firm "we have already proven ourselves" mindset and just focus on attempting to make history.
However, the Heat's three-peat chances depend an awful lot on the second narrative that is going to be talked about all year, and that narrative is the status of Wade's knees.
Wade has been playing on balky knees for a couple of seasons now, and it has gotten so bad that he has occasionally been rendered nearly useless out on the floor. He still has his "Flash" moments, no doubt, particularly in Games 3 and 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, but those moments are becoming fewer and further between.
If D-Wade continues to labor throughout 2013-14, Miami is going to have an uphill battle. Hopefully for Wade and the Heat, the offseason training the 2-guard has been doing with Tim Grover will have him prepared to withstand the rigors of another 82-game season.
Key Additions and Losses
Losses: Mike Miller (one-year deal worth veteran's minimum) and Juwan Howard (still a free agent)
Biggest addition: Greg Oden
The literal meaning of Oden being the Heat's "biggest" addition is exactly why he is their biggest addition. Miami desperately needs some size up front, and at seven-feet, 285 pounds, Oden gives them that.
Of course, there is a chance that Oden never even plays a regular-season game for the Heat, but there is also the possibility that he stays healthy and has a productive year.
Biggest loss: Mike Miller
Miller was really Miami's only loss, but you know what? The Heat may end up missing him. This is a guy who came up big in two consecutive finals, his deadly three-point stroke providing an excellent outlet for James and Wade when they were slashing down the lane.
To be clear, Miami is likely not going to miss Miller during the regular season. After all, he only played in 59 contests in 2012-13. Where you may see his lack of a presence felt, however, is during the playoffs. Are the Heat going to be able to replace his long-distance shooting when they need it in big games?
Of course, Miami has other outside shooters in the way of Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, but all it takes is one injury to the aging Allen, and the Heat may find themselves longing for the days of Miller.
|PG||Mario Chalmers||Norris Cole|
|SG||Dwyane Wade||Ray Allen||James Jones|
|SF||LeBron James||Shane Battier||Michael Beasley||Eric Griffin|
|PF||Udonis Haslem||Chris Andersen||Jarvis Varnado|
|C||Chris Bosh||Greg Oden||Joel Anthony||Justin Hamilton|
* Depth chart includes players with non-guaranteed contracts or training camp invites.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Udonis Haslem vs. Greg Oden
If the season started right now, Udonis Haslem would almost surely be starting for Miami. However, if Oden has a good training camp and/or preseason, you might see head coach Erik Spoelstra seriously consider inserting Oden into the starting lineup.
Having Oden in the starting five could prove helpful for two reasons. One, it allows Bosh to move back to his natural position at power forward, and two, it would clearly give the Heat more size up front.
Haslem has been a loyal, dutiful player for Miami, having spent his entire 10-year career in black and red. However, his production has been steadily declining, and in 2012-13, Haslem posted a career-low 3.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
If Oden demonstrates that he is ready to tackle the job of being a starter, then there is a possibility you may see him on the floor at tipoff on opening night.
Battling For a Roster Spot: Michael Beasley, Jarvis Varnado, Eric Griffin and Justin Hamilton
Let's operate under the assumption that Oden will make the Heat roster. That leaves four players that will be battling for roster spots: Beasley, Varnado, Griffin and Hamilton.
Of the four, Beasley is certainly the one who has the best shot at making the team, and barring another off-the-court mishap or a horrific training camp/preseason, it may already be appropriate to pencil him in. That would leave Miami with two open roster spots.
So, in that case, who would have the edge?
Well, you'd have to think that Hamilton would have an inside track to one of the two slots due to the mere fact that he is seven-feet tall, and the Heat are going to want all of the size they can get.
Varnado would then probably have the edge over Griffin for the final opening. He was drafted by Miami in 2010, and he played in eight games with the team last season, meaning he is familiar with the system. Plus, he offers a shot-blocking threat off the end of the bench should the Heat ever need it.
That would make Griffin a man without a country. He is a small forward, and with LeBron, Battier and probably Beasley occupying the depth chart at that spot, he doesn't exactly fit in. It would seem rather redundant and pointless for Spoelstra to keep Griffin on the roster unless he knocks Miami's socks off in training camp and preseason.
Biggest X-factor: Greg Oden
You have seen his name about 875 times in this article thus far (okay; maybe not that much, but quite a bit), and here it is again. Oden could end up playing an absolutely pivotal role in the Heat's quest for another ring this season.
Again, one thing that has given Miami trouble ever since LeBron and Bosh joined forces with Wade in the summer of 2010 has been its lack of size. Sure, the Heat have been able to overcome that weakness en route to two straight championships, but you can't expect to keep playing with fire and not eventually get burnt (no pun intended).
Just take a look at the rest of the Eastern Conference. The Pacers, who gave Miami all it could handle during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, still have Roy Hibbert and David West up front, and they added Luis Scola. The Brooklyn Nets acquired Kevin Garnett to beef up what was an already solid frontcourt rotation consisting of Brook Lopez, Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans.
So, Miami's top four competitors in the East all have an ample amount of talent and depth on their frontlines. That's where Oden comes in.
If Oden can just give the Heat 15 productive minutes a night, it could go a long way in preserving Bosh and making his job a heck of a lot easier. It would also serve as an answer to the Heat's bigger opponents. A healthy Oden would be key in dealing with a guy like Hibbert, for example.
Best-case scenario: Oden's knees hold up and he takes Haslem's minutes. Oden doesn't have to average a double-double, especially considering he will probably be playing no more than 15-20 minutes a game. However, if he remains healthy and becomes acclimated to Miami's system (and to playing basketball again), expecting him to average about six points and six rebounds while playing stout interior defense is not out of the question. You probably won't see much more than those numbers out of Oden, but it would still be huge for the Heat.
Worst-case scenario: Oden either gets injured again or just cannot get into game shape. He hasn't played in four years, so him being a complete bust is not out of the realm of possibility, either. Under those circumstances, Oden may never even see the floor for Miami.
Heat's Best-Case Scenario in 2013-14
In a perfect world in South Beach, Wade will stay healthy, Bosh will redeem himself and Oden will revitalize his career en route to the Heat winning 65 games and a third straight title.
Over the last two years, the Heat did not need almost everything to go right to win it all. They were able to get by based on sheer talent alone. That will likely not be the case in 2013-14, as the competition is getting stiffer.
Still, Miami remains good enough where it may be able to survive another listless effort on the glass if Wade's knees don't give him any problems. That being said, in a best-case scenario, the Heat won't have to worry about either of those things.
Heat's Worst-Case Scenario in 2013-14
Miami's potential worst-case scenario is also its biggest concern: Wade's knees failing him again.
As dominant as James is, he is not going to be able to capture another championship without a healthy Wade. Defenses would be able to focus nearly all of their attention on LeBron, and that could end up costing the Heat dearly against a team like the Pacers or the Nets.
Under these potential circumstances, Miami will probably win around 55 games during the regular season and then bow out in the second round of the playoffs.
We can sit here and hope that Wade will be healthy all we want, but the fact remains that his body appears to be breaking down rather quickly, and given his aggressive style of play, that could mean that Wade's impact on the game will be nullified—or at least significantly diminished—on both ends.
That isn't to say that the 31-year-old will suddenly become mediocre, but it seems as if the days of Wade single-handedly winning his team ballgames are long gone, and unless he develops a relatively consistent three-point shot, his effectiveness is going to be limited.
LeBron will be LeBron. He will probably put forth another MVP-caliber season, and this time, he may have to score even more. That's not just because of Wade's deteriorating health, but because Spoelstra is apt to significantly reduce No. 3's minutes this season, and James may have to pick up the slack. Perhaps the superstar will average 28-30 points per game rather than the 26-27 he has been posting since he arrived in Miami.
Ultimately, a gimpy Wade and a lack of a consistent presence in the frontcourt will be the Heat's downfall. Indiana, Brooklyn, New York and Chicago are all gaining on Miami, and it's only a matter of time before the torch gets passed.
The Heat will not win 66 games like they did in 2012-13, and that's not just because of the improving squads surrounding them. It's also due to the fact that they will likely coast through the regular season and will attempt to conserve as much energy as possible for the playoffs.
Prediction: Miami goes 56-26, grabs the No. 2 seed and loses in the second round of the postseason.
Of course, a lot of things can change between now and April. Maybe the Heat make a big trade and completely turn the tables. Maybe another key player on a conference rival gets injured and opens the door for Miami to reach its fourth straight finals. Who knows?
What we do know is that the Heat are still an outstanding team that will certainly be in the running for yet another championship. Whether or not they can make history remains to be seen, and it will be a ton of fun to monitor throughout the 2013-14 campaign.