LeBron James and his new-look Cleveland Cavaliers become the favorites in the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls close seconds. But even though James is no longer posting up and kicking out in South Beach, the Heat are being overlooked as real contenders.
Sure, you could write off this entire argument with the fact that Miami had the greatest player in the world and still barely made it to the NBA Finals in 2012 and 2013 and lost the Finals two out of four seasons.
But wasn't the team's greatest strength its greatest weakness? Take last year for example. The Heat couldn't keep up with the San Antonio Spurs' ball movement and overall teamwork because they leaned on James more than Lil Wayne leans on Drake. Without James, the Heat will be forced to revert back to ball movement to get open shots.
The Heat are stronger in two key areas too. With Luol Deng replacing James you know the defensive effort will be there every night. Josh McRoberts gives the team a true stretch 4 and young glue guy. I'm not saying the Heat are better than they were last season, but they don't have to beat the 2013-14 Heat to win the East.
This Team Is Deep
Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade give the Heat two All-Stars to revolve the offense and defense around. But with Cleveland trotting out James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving and the Bulls with Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose, Miami will also rely on its role players.
First the studs. Wade is one of the most efficient offensive players in the game, and as SB Nation's Dane Carbaugh reminds us, Bosh is still in his prime.
Bosh is just 30 years old and several contemporaries -- including David West and Zach Randolph, who are both 33 -- have been productive well after hitting the three-decade mark. The Miami forward is 31st in active career leaders in minutes played, but evidence suggests he still has enough fight left in him to make Miami competitive.
This Heat team is deep with versatile role players. Guys like Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and McRoberts and Danny Granger will all have to play their roles well for the Heat to come out of the East.
Chalmers, once a stout on-ball defender and consistent shooter, will need to bounce back from a poor NBA Finals performance. Cole may have carved out a niche as a plus on-ball defender in last season's Eastern Conference Finals while guarding Lance Stephenson.
McRoberts figures to be the true stretch 4 Miami has been missing. He paired with Bosh in a horns formation will anchor Miami's inverted offense.
Here is a look at what the horns formation does. Both bigs will set up in the high post in order to spread out the defense. Bosh and McRoberts, with their shooting and passing skills, are perfect for this. This figures to be the base of Miami's offense, with Wade getting to the rim or posting up.
Guys like Granger, Reggie Williams and Shannon Brown will be asked to elevate the second and third units on offense. When McRoberts and Bosh spread the defense out, Granger and Williams will be key three-point shooters, while Brown will be an extra ball-handler capable of getting to the rim.
One thing all of the Heat bench has in common now is experience and basketball IQ. That should help with the ball movement. No doubt Riley took that into consideration when assembling this revamped roster.
Analyzing the Competition
The NBA is all about matchups, right? That's why the Indiana Pacers were able to give the Heat a run for their money the last two seasons. That's why the Heat beat the Boston Celtics in 2010. It's why the San Antonio Spurs can roll through almost any team but cringe when the Oklahoma City Thunder or Memphis Grizzlies come to town.
The Cavs may feature a high-powered offense with James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving tearing at the basketball like a group of pit bulls. But that defense? That's an entirely different story. No one on the Cavs is a plus on-ball defender other than James.
Looking at a potential matchup with the Heat, James could be put into a tough situation. If Chris Bosh becomes the focal point of Miami's offense, Anderson Varejao doesn't stand a chance defending him in the Heat's inverted offense. Cleveland may not have a choice but to put James on Bosh, still a mismatch due to Bosh's length.
Cleveland, with that trio, should still be considered the favorite to come out of the East. Certainly, if the Bulls are healthy, Rose and Noah can give the Cavaliers a run for their money. But the Heat, with their experience and matchup issues they present, are largely being discounted as real contenders.