Almost immediately following the union of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach, many of the heavyweights in the league like the Lakers and the Celtics, responded by making additions of their own.
The Lakers added veterans Theo Ratliff, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes to shore up their bench, while the Celtics added the O'Neals (Shaq and Jermaine), and brought back most of the Eastern Conference Champion team that lost to the Lakers in the finals this year.
Nevertheless, Vegas oddsmakers have the Heat as the favorites to win the title next year, and LeBron James recently said in an interview with Slam Magazine that he considers this season a failure of the team fails to win a title.
"This isn't a jell year," James said. "We want to get it done now."
So what do the Heat's primary adversaries have to do to prove the Vegas and assorted NBA analysts wrong in picking the Heat to challenge for a title in June?
I break down each team and discuss it in this Q&A.
Who do they think they have to do to beat the Heat?
The Boston Celtics made several moves in the offseason to address their matchup with the Heat. They re-signed Paul Pierce to a four-year deal, added size in Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal to counter Miami's presumed weakness at center, plus added shooters Delonte West and Von Wafer to shore up their bench.
In their quest to beat the Heat, they're hoping that their bigs (Shaq, Perkins, Davis and Jermaine) patrol the paint and dominate the boards. They're hoping their defense can, if not stop the big three, greatly limit their production.
They're hoping that their bench players like West, Wafer and Nate Robinson thoroughly outplay the Heat's bench. Plus, they're hoping that their defense will stifle this newly assembled team into playing erratic when the game is on the line. They're also hoping that Kevin Garnett stays healthy and anchors the defense.
The Heat will seek to play an uptempo style against the Celtics, while the Celtics would prefer the Heat keep the game half-court and grinded-out.
What are your doubts about their ability to accomplish these objectives?
When you're talking Boston, you're talking about the two primary elephants in the room: age and injury. But even if they stay healthy I think they have questions to answer.
Von Wafer has not looked impressive during preseason and unless West can come in and provide steady perimeter offense off the bench, this team has few real long-range shooting options. Shaq is not the offensive threat, nor rebounding machine, he once was and even if he becomes a problem for Miami in a game, they have enough bigs to foul him and put him to the line.
Perkins is their best defender, but he is not much of an offensive threat.
What matchup is the key to the series?
Some would argue Shaq verses Joel Anthony or Rajon Rondo verses Mario Chalmers, but I would say it's KG verses Chris Bosh. For the Celtics, you know that James and Wade will probably outplay Pierce and Allen.
But you're hoping that KG neutralizes Bosh and that Rondo controls the game with his passing and all around hustle.
Do you foresee these two teams clashing for the Eastern Conference Championship?
Absolutely. No offense to Orlando or Chicago, but I think right now, the two best teams in the East are Boston and Miami. I just don't think that the inclusion of Chris Duhon is going to be enough to get Orlando past these two teams.
Lakers fans will disagree, but I think the Heat will have the league's best record and IF they make it past Boston, they win it all. I don't see LA beating the Heat in the finals. With home court? Maybe.
Without home court? I doubt it. I can't bet against James, Wade and Bosh with home court in the finals. To me, Boston is Miami's biggest threat.
What do they think they need to do to beat Miami?
Well, Jerry Buss and Phil Jackson already launched phase one of "Operation Beat the Heat" by circulating soundbites in the media about this current Laker team's strengths.
Jackson said that it takes more than talent to win, it also takes trust and teamwork. Meanwhile, Buss came out and said this Lakers team was the best he ever assembled. What?
The 1987 Lakers were the best team you ever assembled Mr. Buss. Remember? Magic Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy? Three Hall-of-Famers to LA's one?
Nevertheless, The Lakers added Theo Ratliff and Matt Barnes to shore up the defense off the bench and Steve Blake to run the offense. The Lakers are hoping their bigs Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom just dominate the paint offensively and defensively, while Artest and Barnes put the defensive straight-jackets on LeBron and Wade.
They're hoping Kobe contributes not only big offensive numbers, but also big hustle plays and help contain Wade and that Pau nullifies Bosh's contributions. They're also hoping that their bench will outplay the Heat's bench and that Odom rides the momentum from the FIBA World Championships into the much anticipated matchup between the two teams.
Will their additions help them take down the Heat?
One of the things that Laker fans have been raving about for the last few months are the additions of Barnes, Blake and Ratliff, to strengthen the Lakers bench.
But, count me out as one of the endless experts lauding these additions. Theo Ratliff and Matt Barnes were both non-factors in the playoffs last year. Ratliff barely played during the season last year for the Bobcats (49 games) and in the playoffs against Orlando and Dwight Howard, was invisible, playing 12 minutes a game, chipping in 1.8 points, no blocks and a rebound.
Meanwhile, Barnes was equally invisible scoring six ppg and shooting 36 percent against the Bobcats and the Celtics.
I know what you're thinking, "Barnes' true worth is not offensively, it's on the defensive end." Well, he wasn't too impressive there either in the playoffs. Paul Pierce scored 24.3 points a game on 51 percent shooting against Barnes' "lockdown defense."
Now, Pierce is a great player, to be sure, but if Barnes was dominated by Paul Pierce, what does that say for his ability to contain Wade or James?
As for Blake, sure he's a solid offensive player, good passer and shooter, and a strong hustle guy. But he struggles against athletic point guards and is an inferior defender to Farmar. Remember that steal and dunk over Kevin Garnett that Farmar had in Game Six of the finals?
Those type of momentum plays were essential to the Lakers success. Blake gives them better point guard play, but they lose athleticism and defense off the bench at the point.
Other than Shannon Brown, the Lakers have no athleticism on their team and no consistent perimeter threats outside of Steve Blake, who is a pass-first point guard.
Speaking of Blake, my big question about him is: If the Heat decide to play this lineup: Wade, Miller, James, Haslem and Bosh. Who does he guard? He is a mismatch the Heat can exploit at the 1 and 2.
But couldn't LA counter with Kobe, Artest, Barnes, Pau and Bynum?
From a defensive standpoint, this is LA's best lineup. But offensively it could present problems verses the Heat. They have two offensive liabilities out there with only one offensive creator. If the Heat deny the post and force Kobe into either a tough shot or to give it up to guys that struggle to create their own shots, the Lakers offense will struggle.
Meanwhile, the Heat will have scorers at all-five positions as well as, two established fourth quarter performers who will be more open than they have throughout their careers. The Lakers would have to either leave Haslem or Miller to double Wade and James or play them straight-up which possibly giving Wade or James a good look.
Will the Lakers have the league's best record and home court advantage in a possible finals matchup against the Heat?
That's what a lot of Lakers fans seem to think, but I don't believe it will happen. I think the Heat will have the best record in the NBA. Remember, Kobe is still recovering from knee surgery and Bynum will not be back until at least December, so I anticipate a slow start of LA.
If the Heat do not win a title this year, they will lose to the Magic or Celtics in the Conference Finals. Although the Lakers are the two-time defending champions, I cannot pick them to beat the Heat in the finals without home court. Either the Heat lose before the finals or the Heat win the finals. To me, those are the only two scenarios I see right now.
What do they think they have to do to beat Miami?
Dwight Howard dominates. Their All-Star center needs to not only win the matchup against Joel Anthony, which he should, but he must control the game on both sides of the court with his offense and shot-blocking.
Plus, Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter must come up big against Wade and Bosh respectively and offer help to Howard if the Heat play him straight up. Carter was blanked in the playoffs against the Celtics and when he missed two critical free throws in the closing minutes of the huge Game Two of that series, people began to wonder if he was the answer to the Magic's fourth quarter execution woes.
Jameer Nelson needs to penetrate often and score in the paint against the Heat, winning the matchup with Chalmers by a wide margin and the Magic bench hopes to get more from its reserves Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus than it did in last year's playoffs when both were blanked by Boston.
Are they as big a threat to Miami as Boston?
Not right now. The reason is because, as currently constructed, the Magic have no real matchup advantages beyond the 1 and 5 spots.
Now some would say that's enough since those are presumably the most important positions on the court but the bottom line is, you can't beat the Heat if your guys get thoroughly outplayed by their three best players. The Magic must win one of those three matchups to beat Miami and I just don't see it right now.
Plus, if the game is tight in the fourth quarter, the Heat can always foul Howard if he becomes a threat on offense down the stretch. In the clutch, with the game on the line, the Heat have Wade and James.
The Magic have Nelson (who is inconsistent and can be shut down if the Heat play a bigger defender like Wade on him), Carter (who has had a career of failing to come through in the clutch) and Howard (who would have to win the game from the free throw line) against Wade, James and Bosh in the fourth.
Even Haslem has made more big shots in end of games situations than the Magic's big guns. I think they have a lot to address if they want to beat the Heat.
How much is Stan Van Gundy's "lap dog" comment going to factor into the games this year?
I think it's a pretty safe bet that Bosh will probably be mindful of that statement when these teams meet again, but I don't think it will be a huge factor.
It would be funny if, to try and intimidate Bosh at the free throw line, the fans start singing The Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog." I don't really think that the Magic are really in the position to trash talk the Heat yet though.
At least the Lakers and Celtics have favorable matchups and defenders to somewhat counter the big three. The Magic must try to beat Miami, with not one clear advantage beyond the 5 spot. It'll be like the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals in reverse, where LeBron won the matchup at small forward, but his teammates were killed by Howard, Alston, Hedo and Lewis.
I see a similar fate befalling this team against the Heat, unless they address it.