Winning and misery. That's always been the way that Pat Riley has viewed this life. The same will be true this season. If the Miami Heat win it all again, becoming the first to three-peat since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers, Riley's "Big Three" experiment will be viewed as one of the great achievements of this sports century so far.
If they don't, the last two titles will be quickly forgotten, as questions mount about who stays and who goes. For the NBA's most scrutinized squad, there's no in between.
1) Recapping 2012-13
- First in Southeast Division
- First in Eastern Conference
- NBA Champions
Success: This all could have been different if Chris Bosh hadn't grabbed a rebound, if Ray Allen hadn't set his feet for a remarkable shot, if Dwyane Wade hadn't pushed through the pain, if LeBron James hadn't finally found the faith in his jumper. But they did, and so they were crowned again. Doesn't get more successful than that.
Failure: Not much to cite here, though the amnesty cut of Mike Miller was a disappointment, reminding of the realities of the Heat's luxury-tax restrictions going forward.
Narratives: There's the now, and the later, and the shame is that the latter might overshadow the former. Now it's about whether the Heat can pull off a rare feat, reaching a fourth straight NBA Finals and then taking a third straight title. The later? The potential that one, or all, of the Big Three could opt out in the summer of 2014, and perhaps even head elsewhere.
2) Key Storylines
Key additions: Miami added two players who garnered most of the attention, one (Greg Oden) who was the first pick in the 2007 draft, and another (Michael Beasley) who went second in 2008. As the season opens, however, it's unclear how much either will contribute.
Oden made strides during training camp and the preseason, but every step comes at a risk. Beasley appears to have bought into Heat culture on his second go-round, but he still must show he will sell out for the squad defensively. So it's actually unheralded veteran Roger Mason Jr., who will get the most minutes, possibly even as an emergency starter for Dwyane Wade.
Key losses: Some have said that Mike Miller's absence is overstated, considering that he hardly played during the Heat's 27-game win streak and struggled to stay healthy during his three Heat seasons. But what he did was difficult and valuable, allowing Wade to rest by helping the Heat go 15-2 in his regular-season starting stints. And, in the NBA Finals, Erik Spoelstra dusted him off again, and he came through. That may be missed.
Storyline #1: Is the hunger still there?
Apparently so. To a man, the Heat's returning players came into camp in exceptional shape. Ray Allen showed the slimming effects of the Paleo diet. Mario Chalmers, who has had a tendency to work his way into condition, was at his NBA Finals weight. Chris Andersen lost 10 pounds. And on and on. Which should help them go on and on and on during the sure-to-be-long season.
Storyline #2: What about Wade?
The nine-time All-Star, who will turn 32 in January, spent his summer working with trainer Tim Grover. It showed. Grover emphasized strengthening Wade's legs while slimming his upper body, and Wade appeared more explosive in preseason than at just about any point last season.
Storyline #3: Bringing Back Beasley
Even before he shaved his braids for a fresh look, the former No. 2 overall pick appeared ready for his fresh start. He could provide a playmaking element the second unit sometimes lacked last season.
3) Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
Center: Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen, Greg Oden, Joel Anthony
Forward: LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Michael Beasley, Rashard Lewis
Guard: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Norris Cole, James Jones, Roger Mason Jr.
This may not be a conventional grouping, and Bosh certainly needs to pick up his rebounding numbers, coming off a career low. But he presents plenty of matchup issues for slower centers with his shooting range and first step, and he was an underrated anchor of the Heat's defense down the stretch of important games.
Andersen had a magical season, but he's 35, and his knees could become an issue. If Oden offers anything at any point, this unit elevates to an A.
The game's most physically gifted player now has the mental aptitude and emotional strength to match. It almost doesn't matter who plays the other forward spot when James is manning one of them.
Haslem gets limited minutes now, but his per-minute rebounding numbers are still pretty good, and he started making his jumper more in the second half of last season.
Battier can still do all the little stuff and, feeling that he has little to lose with retirement near, he shot well in the preseason. Beasley and Lewis might get significant minutes elsewhere; here, they'll need to make the most of their opportunities.
With or without Wade? That will always be the question. If Wade is at his slashing, efficient best, this group is an A-minus at worst, and that is even with Mario Chalmers' inconsistency.
Still, Chalmers has done enough in big spots to earn respect, and Norris Cole carved out a niche as an on-ball defender and energizer, especially in the first three rounds of the 2013 playoffs.
Allen needs to give the Heat a bit more on the road than in an uneven 2012-13 regular season. Or maybe not, if he simply makes another shot like the one that saved the 2013 Finals.
Power rankings here.
4) What to Watch For
Can a future Hall of Famer who shot 52 percent last season be a "breakout" candidate? Well, yes, if many observers think Wade's in decline. He's had a look so far that suggests a repeat of his response to 2008's doubters.
No explanation necessary.
There's no evidence for this yet. But Andersen was so good last season, while staying completely healthy, that it seems possible that the Birdman crashes to Earth.
Actually, no Heat player is likely to be traded. But Andersen is the one Miami would like to move to get out from under his $3.9 million player option for next season. It might need to package Cole to do it.
The Heat believe the Pacers talk too much, and they were tired of the new Nets, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, when both were in Boston. But Indiana and Brooklyn still pale next to Chicago, which always manages to get under Miami's skin. Whether it's Joakim Noah calling them "Hollywood as Hell" or Taj Gibson and teammates getting in some shots on James, the Bulls will make Miami work, and mad.
5) Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios With Predicted W-L Record
Best-Case Scenario for the team: A third straight title, after which James, Wade and Bosh quickly announce they're returning to try again...and are even opting out to take less money to accommodate more assistance.
Worst-Case Scenario for the team: Wade breaks down, the Heat gets knocked out, Riley hints at retirement, and James is less to wonder whether he should flee the scene.
Projected W-L record of the team: 60-22.
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