The term "three-peat" has been mythologized in NBA discussions, and for good reason.
Since the inception of the league in 1949, we've only witnessed four teams win (at least) back-to-back-to-back titles: the Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54), Boston Celtics (1959-66), Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98) and Los Angeles Lakers (2000-02).
It's obviously a rare feat, but we stand on the brink of history once more. The Miami Heat are poised to join that exclusive fraternity and expand the number of members to five.
There are plenty of challengers waiting to dethrone LeBron James and Co., but they're all exactly that: challengers. None of the other 29 squads have been able to beat the Heat in the past two years, and they all head into the 2013-14 season as rather definitive underdogs.
In my book, Miami is the unquestioned favorite for yet another title. Until some other squad proves its superiority, I won't have it any other way.
The LeBron James Factor
He's just that good.
At the moment, LeBron isn't the best player in the world by some small margin; he's standing head and shoulders above Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and any other name that you'd like to throw out there.
Quite frankly, you may have to throw his torso into the equation too.
Any conversation about the Association's best passers has to include LeBron. Have you seen those ridiculous passes that he throws with either hand to the opposite side of the court? How about the full-court bounce passes?
Of course, the same can be said about scoring, pure shooting and defending, both on the interior and the perimeter. His combination of skills while in the prime of his career borders on unfair.
And he's on the Heat.
That's a big factor. No other team in the NBA has a LeBron on the roster, and very few squads have a player capable of even slowing him down. I recently wrote an article on how Paul George can become a "LeBron stopper," but even that included the caveat that doing so only involved marginally limiting his effectiveness, not stopping him entirely.
Since the Dallas Mavericks schemed well enough to hinder LeBron's play in the 2011 NBA Finals—and let's definitely acknowledge the defense, not pin it on a disappearance from the MVP so that we can avoid Mark Cuban's wrath—no one has been able to keep him from his goals.
Literally no one.
Since that time, LeBron has won two regular-season MVPs, two titles, two Finals MVPs and an Olympic gold medal. It's a run of individual- and team-based perfection that is virtually unmatched throughout the annals of the sport's history, and there haven't been any signs that his reign of terror is coming to an end anytime soon.
Even when LeBron was with the Cleveland Cavaliers and carrying a fairly impotent squad on the shoulders of his individual greatness, the team was still expected to compete. It was a disappointment when he couldn't win a title, after all.
But now he's playing on a stacked team, and he's just better. A lot better.
His post game has taken many strides, and that jump-hook after spinning to the left is borderline unstoppable. His shooting stroke has similarly improved, to the point that he ranked sixth among all qualified players in my pure shooting metric. That's a ranking that would have been absolutely unthinkable even two years ago.
The New Additions
Michael Beasley and Greg Oden could end up playing big parts in Miami's run for a three-peat. But the key word there is "could." Both of them are far from guarantees.
The Heat inked Oden despite all the injury concerns, hoping that he would be able to somewhat regain his health after a near-endless multitude of knee injuries and microfracture surgeries. The Ohio State product literally hasn't played in an NBA game since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, and he's suited up only 82 times since he was drafted right before Kevin Durant in 2007.
As for Beasley, he was signed to a non-guaranteed contract after a marijuana-related arrest led to his release from the Phoenix Suns. It's now his second stint with the Heat, who originally used the No. 2 pick of the 2008 draft to acquire him out of Kansas State.
Since the former Wildcat was drafted, he's been nothing but a disappointment. When you can't earn playing time on the bottom-feeding Phoenix Suns because your defense doesn't exist and your offense is just that inefficient, well...
But the Heat aren't dwelling on the past.
They've taken a risk with these signings, but the risks are mitigated by non-guaranteed contracts and the strengths of the rest of the roster. If they don't work out, Miami won't have any sweat to wipe off its metaphorical brow (yes, even in South Beach).
And if they do pan out, the Heat's status as favorites transitions into the realm of overwhelming favorites to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the 2013-14 campaign.
So, what needs to happen for them to work? Beasley is the more complicated case.
He must recognize that he's going to receive limited minutes and then strive to play as efficiently as possible, eschewing mid-range jumpers for work in the post and becoming more of a passer than ever before. Defensive focus is a must as well, especially in the Erik Spoelstra system.
On top of everything else, he needs to avoid the off-court problems.
Oden only needs to stay healthy. If that happens, he'll essentially take on Joel Anthony's role, crashing the boards relentlessly and protecting the interior of the Miami defense.
Can you imagine if both of these work out, though?
These are risks that a championship-contending team can afford to make, and they're the type of moves that the Chicago Bulls made during their second three-peat (signing an ancient Robert Parish, taking on former Bad Boys, etc).
A closing lineup of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Beasley, Chris Bosh and Oden would be absolutely terrifying on both ends of the court. Even more terrifying than the already fear-invoking lineup that Miami currently boasts at the end of games.
Challengers to the Throne
Miami is quite lucky to call the Eastern Conference home.
Because of that convenient fact, it doesn't have to worry about facing the gauntlet of tough and hungry Western Conference teams. Out of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, only one tired team is going to emerge for the NBA Finals.
The East, however, is becoming an increasingly difficult conference as well.
Going into the 2013-14 season (a caveat that feels necessary after the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers' experience), it appears as though there will be five elite teams out East: the Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.
Of the four other squads, the Pacers and Bulls should be the biggest challengers. The two New York-based teams have too many fatal flaws: age on the court and inexperience on the sidelines (which I suppose is age-related in its own right) for the Nets and a roster that simply isn't talented enough for the Knicks.
The Heat have been able to go through both the Pacers and the Bulls in recent years, but this season's versions are stronger. Indiana upgraded its bench rather significantly and should have a healthy Danny Granger back in the lineup.
As for Chicago, it's all about two words: Derrick Rose.
So far, the two-time champs have been able to put down every uprising against their dominance, and there's no reason to doubt their ability to continue doing so until we see otherwise.
How Can They Not Be?
If it feels like almost the entire Miami roster is returning, that's because it is.
Below you can see the percentages of minutes played that are returning and departing from the 2012-13 bunch:
And only Mike Miller can be counted as a big loss. However, his production can easily be replaced by the other members of the current roster, especially if Beasley is able to regain his status as an offensive threat.
Every other part of the Heat's roster is intact, and it may have gotten even stronger.
LeBron, Wade and Bosh are back. So too are Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and all the other key rotation members who have helped Miami win back-to-back titles.
And that in itself is the true key: back-to-back titles. Winning consecutive championships is a rare accomplishment, and it's a true sign of a dominant team. No player is aging to the point where he can't produce consistently, so nothing figures to change right now.
And if you're pointing to Wade's knees, let me remind you of what happened the last time he had OssaTron shock therapy. That would be in 2008, right before he exploded throug the 2008-09 season to the tune of a career-high 30.2 points per game and enjoyed the best individual season of his career.
Wade is not declining.
His role is simply changing, as he's becoming more of an über-efficient secondary option on offense and a team-oriented defender. That's all that's happening.
As the Lakers proved last year, and the Heat proved back in 2011, winning a championship isn't easy, even with a group of standout players. It takes chemistry, a solid scheme on both ends of the court, and a deep roster filled with the right kind of complementary role players.
Thanks to both 2012 and 2013, we know that the Heat can check all of those boxes off.
And—unless something changes rather drastically—we should be counting on them to prove it once more in 2014.