Coming into the 2010-2011 NBA season, everyone that wasn't a Laker fan or Celtic fan was looking forward to watching the Miami Heat make a run at the title. Little did we know, it would be stopped short by none other than Mark Cuban's surprise Dallas Maverick team, led by one of the best Sixth Man in Jason "the Jet" Terry, an unexpected J.J. Barea, a suave performance by aging Jason Kidd and, of course, the one-legged jumper in Dirk Nowitzki. The ever-so-unstoppable Miami Heat "Big Three" were ever-so exposed, and though they are difficult to defend, they are beatable, obviously.
Now that there will indeed be an NBA season this year, early predictions of who will win the title have been thrown up into the air.
According to Vegas Betting Lines, the Heat will enter this upcoming season as the odds-on favorites to win the championship this year, something that probably won't surprise many of you. The defending champion Dallas Mavericks come in at a 17/2 odds, the Los Angeles Lakers come in at a 5/2 odds, and the Oklahoma City Thunder come in at a modest 15/2 odds.
This does in many ways represent the majority of fans' predictions heading into the season, but as you know, there are no such things as "odds-on favorites" in reality. Instead, this can be taken with a grain of salt and can be looked at in a broader sense, helping us label the top teams in the league.
Out of this group of teams, the Thunder are the most overlooked. They are the youngest of the four teams listed above and as they approach the 66-game season, the Thunder can only smirk at the possibility they will have a slight advantage over older teams such as the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers just due to their youth and stamina.
With this advantage and confidence carrying over from last year's regular- and postseason success, there is a lot to like about this young, up-and-coming Thunder squad, which does have one of the top three players in the league in Kevin Durant.
This, of course, is taking into account that the Thunder stay relatively injury free, meaning they avoid any serious/long-term injuries, they improve upon last year's success, Russell Westbrook wises up and minimizes the number of jumpshots he takes, and they don't choke in the playoffs—not that they have already, but who knows?
The Thunder have a great core group of players in Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and a more-than-solid bench in James Harden (strong candidate for Sixth Man), Nate Robinson (if healthy) and Eric Maynor. With this eight-man rotation they have established, it will be difficult to defeat on a regular basis, let alone in the playoffs.
At this point, many of you are probably frustrated with the fact the Heat are almost being ignored in this whole outlook, but let's remember the Heat solely got to the Finals due to three players, and that usually doesn't convert into championships.
The Heat are without a doubt an unstoppable force just with the "Big Three": Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. However, as you have probably realized after watching their first season together, not everything went according to plan.
Of course, not every team is going to figure out their roles, identities and team chemistry as a whole in their first year together and that is understandable, but the Heat's main problems didn't consist of team chemistry and player roles; instead, it rested in the liability of the Heat's supporting cast as a whole.
Mario Chalmers averaged a mediocre 7.8 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game and, worst of all, 2.1 assists per game. Mike Bibby didn't do any better by averaging a blistering 3.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG and an even worse 1.1 APG—and the list does continue.
To the Heat fans' surprise, the "Big Three" did perform to their potential during the playoffs, usually coming in spurts, and also excluding anything associated with fourth quarters for James. However, for the most part, Wade, Bosh and James did their part to win a title and just came up short to what was a freak show in the Mavericks, which was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the them, and they took full advantage of it.
The point is, the Heat, unless they can manage to find a better starting point guard and can upgrade their bench as a whole, are beatable, and we have seen this already.
Durant is approaching his prime and so are the Thunder as a team, and if they can reach their full potential in this next season, the sky is the limit for this new sheriff in town. And yes, that is in reference to the fact Oklahoma is still in many ways a Wild West-type town—at least it looks to be.
There are no guarantees heading into the season, especially one that will hold 66 games instead of the full 82—but Durant and the Thunder look to have been prepared for this season beginning right after losing to the Lakers in Round 2 of the playoffs last year.
Maybe Durant's attempt to give a good impression by playing flag football with Oklahoma State students, playing in local stunts and simply continuing to play a game that he loves—even when there might have been no season—may eventually pay off, but who knows if this will happen? I mean, the NBA season isn't technically in play yet actually, is it? I guess we'll just have to find out today.