The Miami Heat enter the 2013-14 NBA season as the favorites to reach the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year and achieve the historic “Three-Peat." Pundits, general managers and oddsmakers all peg the Heat as the team to beat this season, but the road to the Finals has gotten progressively more difficult with each year, and this season will certainly be no exception.
The East will be stronger at the top with the Chicago Bulls, looking as dangerous as ever with a resurgent Derrick Rose, gunning for the top seed in the playoffs in addition to the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets both reloading with even more talent and size to throw at the defending champions.
What will it truly take for the Heat to once again be the last team standing in June? Let’s take a look at five of the biggest questions for the 2013-14 squad that could make or break their championship aspirations…
From February 3 to March 27, 2013, the Heat didn’t lose a game. Not even a 27-point deficit in Cleveland could stop them on their historic winning streak of 27 games, the second longest ever in pro sports, and a franchise-best 66 victories. The Heat then outlasted the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs in back-to-back seven-game series to win it all.
The road to the 2012 championship was a grueling one indeed, with the Heat being the first NBA team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy after trailing in three straight playoff series.
Of course, all of this was done after their first championship, so complacency may not be as big of a factor as it may seem heading into the fourth year of the Big 3 era.
Then again, Heat fans have seen this scenario before, where their team celebrates raising a championship banner before hosting the Chicago Bulls for Opening Day. It also happened on Halloween in 2006, and the subsequent 42-point blowout loss was by far the worst defeat ever by a defending NBA champion on opening night. The Bulls were also the team that subsequently swept them out of the playoffs in the first round.
While this year’s Heat squad has already proven they won’t be fat and complacent (I’m looking at you, Antoine Walker), they could slip into a lull and a false sense of security in which overconfidence could stem from their past successes. They certainly have the talent, but that's only part of the championship equation.
Something tells me the reigning MVP won’t allow this to happen, but it leads to another burning question for this season…
The King somehow topped himself after a magnificent 2012 in which he won MVP, Finals MVP, his first NBA title and the Olympic gold medal with his best season yet.
He was a near-unanimous MVP again, his fourth in the last five years, as he added to his arsenal of offensive moves in a lethal, efficient manner as well as making a serious bid for Defensive Player of the Year.
But all this winning has also come at a price. Three straight trips to the NBA Finals after arriving in Miami as well as last year's Olympics have translated into big minutes for LeBron, and no one plays them quite like he does. Many times he is the team’s primary ball-handler, and his versatility on defense means Spoelstra won’t hesitate to assign him the task of limiting the opposition’s most dangerous player, regardless of position.
This season he’ll have to essentially start from scratch with a 0-0 record and everything to prove once again if he wants to be considered an all-time great and match hardware with NBA legends. Oh, and if the Heat do lose and falter on their mission to become the newest NBA dynasty, LeBron will be assigned the blame as well.
All of that goes into being the most dominant player on the best team in the NBA and he has embraced that role, to say the least.
The Miami Heat will always be a dangerous team for as long as they have LeBron on their roster, but to become a truly special team for the ages they have to be dominant.
And to be dominant, they absolutely need Dwyane Wade to stay healthy throughout the postseason, not just the regular season.
He says he’s not where he wants to be physically, but we’ve seen him already having impressive games in the preseason where he has displayed some regained quickness in his step and in his lateral movements cutting across the paint.
The rest for his knees during the offseason, along with then completing an intensive eight-week workout program with Tim Grover, will certainly help, but the bigger question is how his knees will hold up over the 82-game season and what could amount to more than 100 games in his 11th pro season.
Wade’s game relies on his explosiveness, and any issues with his knees will obviously affect his shooting as well. He had an impressive 2012-13 season, after undergoing offseason surgery for his left knee, in which he averaged 21.2 points, five rebounds and 5.1 assists. But his bone bruise injury suffered late in the season is what mattered the most by the time the playoffs started.
Injuries can happen at any time and to any player, but Wade’s chronic knee issues can’t be ignored either. The good news is that he is lighter, which means less of a workload for his knees, and a deeper bench could allow Wade to average less minutes and keep him fresher down the road.
No sooner were we conditioned to believe that Greg Oden was making great strides in his comeback with the Heat, but to not hold our breath for a return to the court any time soon, when he came off the bench to play four impressive minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans Wednesday night.
He made his presence felt around the basket on defense, grabbed a couple of rebounds and even caught his first pass and slammed it down for the enthusiastic dunk. He would have had another dunk had he not been fouled on the way to the basket. Just in this short sneak preview can we see why the Heat took a chance on him and why head coach Erik Spoelstra personally recruited the former #1 draft pick to continue his rehabilitation in Miami.
At the veteran’s minimum, and with the Heat so mindful of the luxury tax, finding a gifted 7-footer who can finish around the basket and muscle up to the Roy Hibberts and Joakim Noahs of the NBA is a godsend for the champs. Pat Riley has been looking for a capable big man since Alonzo Mourning retired and Shaquille O’Neal moved on.
Of course, this is all based on Oden’s continued improvement with his health and any setback could be huge for the Heat in order to get any sort of meaningful production from him this season.
The Heat were forced to part ways with clutch playoff performer Mike Miller and have restocked the bench with lower-cost options in Michael Beasley and Roger Mason Jr. While both have had some nice moments in the preseason, there’s still a question of how can you really replace the fan favorite who “let it fly” and was instrumental in both championship runs.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle is Rashard Lewis, who is as healthy as he’s been in years, and could be counted on for his long range shooting and his length. Norris Cole must also show maturation and leadership in this third season backing up Mario Chalmers.
But the most important pieces to the puzzle are Shane Battier and Ray Allen, two battle-tested veterans that any playoff team would kill to have on their bench and are, in many ways, the perfect complement to the Big 3.
However, they are also a year older now and had stretches last season where they struggled with their shot. Battier was mired in an extended shooting slump at the worst possible time for the Heat but bounced back miraculously in Game 7 of the NBA Finals with six three-pointers. If he hadn’t turned in that historic performance, or if Allen’s series-saving corner three at the end of Game 6 had instead rattled off the rim, we’d be talking all summer long about the Heat’s failure.
When the line between champions and second-place is this razor-thin, any of these factors could make a huge difference in the playoffs. This is the beauty of sports and also the cause of its greatest pain for the losing side, where we see it all play out in real time to our delight or to our horror.