After a rocky start to the season, the Miami Heat came together as a team, made a very serious run to the NBA championship and were within two wins of taking home the trophy. They are a strong team and a skilled team that beat some of the best in the league en route to the Finals.
The upcoming season is one filled with many questions for the Heat, the most important of which is whether they can make it back to the Finals in an attempt to redeem their loss from last year.
Whether they lift the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end is another question, but I believe that the Heat will be the best team in the Eastern Conference this year.
Love them or hate them, it's difficult to deny the talent that this team possesses, and now that they have a year under their belts together, they will change from three individual stars into an All-Star team.
Here are the reasons why Miami will return to the Finals this year, hopefully with a happy ending.
At the end of the season last year, the Chicago Bulls were the best team in the Eastern Conference, or at least that's what their record said. The Bulls and Heat played each other three times in the regular season, with Chicago winning all three games. They also won Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Finals match-up. Miami then went on to win the next four games and advance to the Finals.
Granted the league is currently in a lockout and not much can be done in the way of trades or free agent signings, but the Bulls are currently the same team they were last year and will most likely not change very much by the time basketball officially returns. They didn't have a lottery pick in the draft to give them a new rookie superstar, and their core of Rose, Boozer, Deng and Noah is unlikely to be altered in any way.
That being said, the Bulls were an amazing team in the regular season and they went undefeated against the Heat. They then completely collapsed against Miami with four straight losses in their playoff series.
Miami will beat this Bulls team again next year, because not only does that playoff series show the gap in talent between the clubs, but the Heat are now a more cohesive unit that will definitely be tougher to beat next time around.
Miami's second major threat in the East is Boston with its own Big Three. The trio of Allen, Garnett and Pierce have already delivered a championship to their city, but as we saw in last year's second round, they are simply unable to keep up with Miami's Big Three.
Sure Rondo is young and extremely talented, but who knows how much the other three have left in the tank. If the NBA cancels this season, Allen, Garnett and Pierce will be 37, 36 and 35 years old before the start of the 2012-2013 season. Bosh, Wade and LeBron will only be 27, 30 and 26 next summer.
Boston won't be able to keep up with Miami next year, especially if the Heat upgrade Chalmers to starting point guard and find a talented center. The Heat will be too much for Boston's Big Three to handle.
The Heat beat Boston in five games in the playoffs last year, and as Miami's Big Three moves one more season into its collective prime, the Celtics are moving one step closer to retirement.
Miami's other two threats for contention in the Eastern Conference are the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic. After acquiring All-Star Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks were elevated to contender status, and were then completely rocked in a four-game sweep by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
Amare and Melo are talented, and the Knicks do have some role players, but they cannot ultimately compete with the best in the league, not right now at least.
The Magic are Miami's in-state rivals, and while they do have arguably the best center in the league ripping boards and breaking backboards for them, the Magic are simply not contenders. Dwight has done all he can for this team and they are going nowhere. If he does end up leaving before the next NBA season, Orlando will have no effect on Miami's drive toward the No. 1 spot in the East.
Whether you're a die-hard fan who will not hear of any talk besides the fact that Wade or LeBron are the best in the league, or you are a Big Three hater and think Dirk or Kobe can take them, there is one thing that is for sure: all three of these guys are All-Star talents and fit somewhere into the top 20 players in the NBA.
LeBron is an MVP winner, Wade is a Finals MVP winner and Bosh is an extremely talented player at his position and can score on and defend against almost anyone on opposing teams.
That being said, it's difficult to say that these Heat were the Cinderella story of the 2011 playoffs and will not make it back next year. The Heat are a very talented group who now know what they are capable of. Once the proper role players are acquired and fitted into their spots in the lineup, Miami will be unstoppable.
They know the taste of the NBA Finals and were so close to winning it that they will do everything they can to make it back to that spot. Miami has the talent necessary for a title run, all they need to do is keep up the good work.
If Scottie Pippen can compare LeBron James to Michael Jordan, then I can say that Udonis Haslem is the Dennis Rodman of the Heat. While Haslem is not as eccentric as the Worm was, he is a fan favorite in Miami, rips down boards on both sides of the floor, and is the spark plug in Miami's lineup. Haslem is a solid role player for this team, and having him play a full season next year will help the Big Three immensely.
Another huge help for the Big Three could come in the form of point guard Mario Chalmers. Chalmers should be upgraded to the starting point guard this year considering he is more than capable and will save Miami the trouble of a trade or spending money on a free agent. With a younger and more skilled point guard at the helm, the Heat will be able to run the ball more and will have someone who is more than willing to raise the stats in the assists column as opposed to total points.
Both of these players are the perfect fit to help Miami complete a return to the NBA finals as they are not only able to score and defend, but they also know that they don't need the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. Skilled players without huge egos? Sounds like the perfect fit to round out the lineup in Miami and lead to a Finals return in 2012.