The Miami Heat will begin the 2010-11 NBA season with one of the greatest trios of talent the league has ever seen, but are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh enough to elevate the Heat to the top of the East?
Wade and Pat Riley's shrewd moves guarantee Miami will earn one of the Eastern Conference's playoff spots, but where do the Heat stand among the top teams from last season?
Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, and Boston were the top four seeds in the playoffs last season, and of the four, Cleveland is least likely to make a return trip.
Miami definitely has a roster capable of replacing Cleveland on that list, and Riley has assembled enough supporting talent to make a serious run at Boston, Orlando, and Atlanta.
Many observers have felt that Miami wouldn't be able to afford quality players to complement their superstar trio, but a quick glance at the roster shows Riley has signed a group of serviceable, if not impressive, players.
The starting line-up for the Heat will likely consist of Wade, James, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, although Heat mainstay Udonis Haslem could potentially start alongside Bosh.
In players like Mike Miller, James Jones, Carlos Arroyo, Jamaal Magloire, and Juwon Howard, the Heat have depth, experience, defense, and three-point shooting.
That group of players is better than anything that was previously imagined for the Heat, and if Jarvis Varnado, Dexter Pittman, and Da'sean Butler make the roster, Miami will have talented youth also.
The reigning conference champion Celtics return the majority of their roster intact, and former Heat player Jermaine O'Neal will assume the duties of Rasheed Wallace, who is expected to retire.
Boston battled questions about their age through much of the 2009-10 regular season, until an inspired postseason run carried them within six minutes of clinching their second NBA title in three years.
The big three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce will once again face questions about their age, but in reality, Garnett should be somewhat healthier than last season.
Celtics' point guard Rajon Rondo has blossomed into one of the NBA's better point guards, and his penetration, speed, and defensive skills could cause Miami's super team countless problems.
The Celtics will also hold an advantage in the paint, provided Kendrick Perkins is able to recover from a knee injury suffered in the Finals, but as Garnett can attest, a full recovery is no guarantee.
The Eastern Conference runner-up Orlando Magic also will return their roster mostly intact, and the Magic have the advantage of the most dominant post player in the NBA.
Miami has no defense for Dwight Howard in the paint, and the stable of three-point shooters that surround him can cause match-up nightmares for most of the league's teams, except the Heat.
Wade, James, and Bosh are all comfortable defending the perimeter, and the Heat also have defensive length in Miller and Jones, which should provide a suitable counter to Magic shooters such as Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis.
Jameer Nelson, like Rondo, is the key for Orlando, because his penetration could cause mismatches on the perimeter and open up the lane for the overpowering Howard.
The third-seeded Atlanta Hawks have the athleticism and talent to compete with Miami, but it's doubtful they have the resolve to defeat a Wade-led team which is just as talented.
The Hawks have star players in Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford, but talent has never been a question for Atlanta. Consistency has been the Hawks' bane, and Miami will surely capitalize on that weakness.
If Johnson were to suffer through a series against Miami in the manner he did against Orlando in last season's playoffs, the Hawks would have no chance and the results would likely mirror the Magic's sweep.
One common thread Boston, Orlando, and Atlanta share is the ability to play lock-down defense, and although Miami appears to be a capable defensive team on the surface, we will have no real clue until the season starts.
Good team defense comes from continuity and chemistry, and the Magic and Celtics have demonstrated both as the Finals' representatives for the Eastern Conference the past two seasons.
When discussing Miami's favorite status this is the most underrated aspect of all, and regardless of what anyone says, playoff chemistry is not learned during the course of the regular season.
Miami's roster is talented enough and deep enough to hang with any of the above-mentioned teams, and in Atlanta's case, the Heat appears to be clearly the superior franchise.
But, the Celtics and Magic will bring the same level of talent in addition to the experience of understanding what it takes to succeed in the postseason, and will the brilliance of Miami's trio overcome that?
I have my doubts.
But, there is no question that Miami has a team talented enough to beat either Boston or Orlando, and once the playoffs begin the Heat may have the confidence of a full regular season on their side.
The Eastern Conference will be even more top-heavy than they were a season ago, but when the 2010-11 season ends will the Miami Heat reside at the top of that heap?