2011 NBA Preview: Miami Heat Enter Next Season as Favorite

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2011 NBA Preview: Miami Heat Enter Next Season as Favorite
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Delayed by the lockout, it may take longer than expected for LeBron James and the Miami Heat to get the opportunity to make do on their infamous promise of multiple titles. Regardless of whether there will be an upcoming season, the next time NBA teams suit up for the season, the Miami Heat will be the clear favorite.

The Heat took over the sports world about a year ago when they shockingly lured LeBron James away from his hometown Cavaliers, re-signed Dwyane Wade and added Chris Bosh to form the notorious “Big Three.”

The unprompted celebration only added more venom and ultimately turned the Heat into the villains of the sports world. Soon enough, NBA legends such as Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan were providing their own commentary on the “decision,” and questioning LeBron James’ makeup.

The Heat were a large component to the NBA’s most interesting season—never had any sports team been scrutinized on a nightly basis like the Miami Heat. A slow start led to speculation that Pat Riley would be stepping down to the bench, replacing head coach Erik Spoelstra.

After a regular season that warranted 58 wins and second place in the Eastern Conference, the Heat went through the Eastern Conference with relative ease, taking care of Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago in five games each. Fourth-quarter struggles and the magical play of Dirk Nowitzki ended the Heat’s season ring-less and full of question marks.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Despite a trip to the Finals and a roster that included three All-Stars, Heat fans were left with a sense of emptiness; many had proclaimed that this team would match the great 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-win mark.

But the Heat have the chance to build off last season’s success. They will enter the season as the odds-on favorite in an Eastern Conference that includes an aging Boston Celtics roster, an uncertain Orlando Magic team and the same Chicago Bulls team that the Heat defeated in five games.

I fully expect the Heat to at least repeat as Eastern Conference champions. The Western Conference, on the other hand, doesn’t boast a single team that the Heat couldn’t beat in a seven-game series, including the Mavericks and the Lakers.

This Heat team will only get better. Ultimately James, Wade and Bosh must fully adapt to each other and learn how to play their best when they are on the court together. Last season, James felt more comfortable when Wade was on the bench and vice versa. The only way the Big Three will live up to their potential is with time.

Last season, the Heat got off to a slow start due to the fact that the Big Three were still learning how to play to each other's strengths. In fact, the Heat got off to a 9-8 start through 17 games.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
James had his fair share of fourth quarter struggles during the NBA finals.

This season, I wouldn’t expect a slow start from the Heat—the adaptation phase won’t be necessary. Instead, I would expect the Heat to play similar to how they played during the first three rounds of the playoffs.

The one major concern for the Heat is LeBron James’ fourth-quarter struggles. Had James played better during the fourth quarter, the Heat would’ve likely been entering next season as defending champs.

It’s important to note that these fourth-quarter struggles were very untypical of James’ fourth-quarter play throughout the postseason. James was the Heat’s closer in both the Boston and Chicago series.

In the first three series leading up to the Finals, James had shot a red-hot 15-for-31 in the fourth quarter. The issue can be fixed. It’s very possible that James’ fourth-quarter struggles are an aberration; James may have to defer more to Dwyane Wade.

More players will continue to see South Beach as the premier destination. Last season we saw veterans flocking to Miami to take the veteran’s minimum in exchange for a last chance at a championship.

The Heat didn’t have much of a roster behind the Big Three, but I could see veterans such as Jamal Crawford, Shane Battier and Michael Redd all signing with Miami. Who knows how the new collective bargaining agreement will impact the salary cap, but I’m sure more veterans will be willing to sign with the Heat, bolstering the Heat’s thin roster.

There will be young teams willing to challenge the Heat; the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be right in the mix, battling the Heat for the next few years.

Entering year two of the Heat experiment, however, I think Miami will only get better. The Big Three will play to each other's strengths and the roster will improve.

It’s possible that the only thing stopping the Heat from a championship is the current lockout.

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