Game of Thrones: Who can possibly beat the Heat in 2014?

on June 26 2013 4:14 AM
Game of Thrones: Who can possibly beat the Heat in 2014?

The Miami Heat have now won two consecutive NBA Championships and will be looking for the elusive 'three-peat', something that hasn't been achieved since the Shaq and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers in 2002. It is the Holy Grail in the pursuit of a dynasty, which is what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh predicted when they controversially joined forces in the summer of 2010.

If they thought back-to-back titles was hard, then the 'three-peat' will be a monumental task. There are so many challengers to the Heat's throne that are set for improvement next season, making their quest fraught with danger.

Here are the main obstacles standing between them and immortality:

1. Chicago Bulls:

The Bulls did remarkably well last season when you consider their talisman, Derrick Rose, missed the entire season with an ACL injury. There was talk that Rose would return for the Playoffs, but the Bulls decided not to risk him and they were defeated in the conference semi-finals by the Heat in five games.

This season, Rose is expected to be available from day one, an incredible boost to an already talented roster who are tough to break down defensively. In Joakim Noah, they have one of the best defensive centers in the league. A monster on the boards with a terrific engine who gets under the skin of his opponents. In Carlos Boozer, they have a scoring presence on the interior who has the ability to take the pressure off Rose as he works his way back to top form. Together, they are one of the best forward/center combinations in the NBA, which is a solid base to build a championship franchise on.

It will be foolish of the Bulls to trade away Small Forward Luol Deng, with rumors he is on the trading block ahead of the draft. Deng carried the team last season in Rose's absence and became an All-Star for the second time. The Bulls do have some salary cap concerns so trading one of their senior members of the squad could be inevitable, but trading last seasons leading scorer and best perimeter defender would leave a gaping hole in their lineup.

However, at the end of the day it will all come down to how Rose responds to the gruelling schedule the NBA is sure to provide following injury. The Bulls will be reliant on the former MVP to get them closer to the Heat as soon as this season. He is one of the few superstars in the league and averages of 25 points and 8 assists is not inconceivable on his return. We have already seen Adrian Peterson return from a similar injury to gain the NFL's MVP award and the city of Chicago will hoping Rose can do the same. If he returns to his best, the Bulls have legitimate championship claims under Rose's leadership and a significant improvement on their 45-37 record is expected.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder:

Following the trade of sixth man of the year James Harden, the Thunder took a backwards step and were unable to return to the NBA finals, losing in the conference semi-finals to the Memphis Grizzlies in what was seen by some as the upset of the entire Playoffs. Despite that, this group of individuals is too talented not to bounce back and make another serious tilt at the title.

As always, the fate of this team rests on their two stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. On their day, they are probably the best one-two punch in the league. They have had their differences over the years, with Westbrook feeling he should be the focal point of the offense. Regardless of his thoughts, Durant is the best player on this team by some margin. A devastating scorer who has developed other facets to his game that has turned him into the complete player.

They, like the Bulls, also have a solid interior presence. Despite his limitations offensively, Kendrick Perkins remains one of the most physical defenders in the NBA. He is one of the only Center's in the league who can guard the likes of Dwight Howard one-on-one and plays with a nasty streak that has most opponents cowering. Serge Ibaka is one of the best shot-blockers around and has developed his offensive game adequately enough for the Thunder to choose him over Harden for their last big contract. He was unfortunate not to be considered for the defensive player of the year award and is expected to make huge strides again next year.

With these fiercesome players leading the charge, the Thunder will be worthy favorites for the Western Conference title in 2014.

3. Los Angeles Clippers:

With the hiring of Doc Rivers as Head Coach from the Boston Celtics, the Clippers have made a serious statement of intent. They are a young, ambitious team and with someone of Rivers' experience guiding them, the sky is the limit for a team that has long been considered the laughing stock of the league.

Of course, this all depends on Chris Paul re-signing this summer. The early vibes of this occurring weren't very optimistic, yet with the hiring of Rivers, Paul will recognise this as a positive step en route to a championship. Most of the pieces are already in place if Paul was to stay. They have the most creative Point Guard in the league, in Blake Griffin they have the NBA's most electrifying Power Forward and in DeAndre Jordan they have a rough diamond who has the potential to be as good as there is in the league at the position.

They also have quality roleplayers who are capable of changing the course of a game. Eric Bledsoe is a nice complimentary option off the bench with a quick step and the potential to do serious damage, when given the opportunity. Chauncey Billups brings the experience of having won championships and despite his age, can be relied on to knock down a big shot in a crucial situation. They also have one of the premiere scorers from the sixth man position in Jamal Crawford, who on his day is a sensational shooter.

When you take in account all these pieces, plus the added steel Rivers is set to implement into this team, then providing they get Chris Paul signed, the Clippers are going to be a force to be reckoned with next season.

4. Indiana Pacers:

They came within a whisker of claiming the Eastern Conference crown last season, and with that experience under their belts, the Pacers are set to be taken far more seriously next term. They may not be the most thrilling to watch, yet their defensive mentality and methodical approach means they are a match for anyone in the NBA.

Having All-Star Danny Granger back from injury for the upcoming campaign will be a massive boost for the franchise. Granger was the team's primary scoring option before he was sidelined with a knee injury. The emergence of Paul George has changed Granger's status with the team and there have been trade rumors circulating before this week's draft, but the Pacers would be wise to retain Granger as he could be the missing piece of the newly-formed Pacers jigsaw.

It's also imperative that they get Power Forward David West re-signed to a long-term deal. It should be regarded as their top priority this off-season as he is sure to generate a lot of interest from half the team's in the league. West is an efficient scorer, equally adept in the post or from mid-range, he is a perfect compliment to Center Roy Hibbert, a combination that was extremely fruitful last season. West will command in the region of $9 million a year, something the Pacers would be wise to pay.

The continued improvement of Paul George will be an essential part of the team's pursuit of the Larry O'Brien trophy. George was a first time All-Star last year and won the NBA's Most Improved Player award, cementing him as one of the finest young prospects in the game. He has the perfect balance of offensive skill and defensive intensity that you want in a swingman, making him the perfect player to build a franchise around. Still only 23, there's just no telling how good George can be if he continues to develop.

This team wasn't far away last season, and with the addition of Granger it could be all that they need to surpass the Heat as kings of the Eastern Conference.

5. New York Knicks:

The Knicks exit from the Playoffs at the hands of the Pacers represented another season of failure in New York, even though the team made huge strides under Coach Mike Woodson. They might have been the oldest collective roster in the league, but they are the team who had the most success against the Heat in 2012/13.

Whether they can continue this trend next year remains to be seen. They do have a solid spine in Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony to rely on. However, that isn't enough and they do have some lingering questions about the rest of the squad. J.R Smith, the NBA's sixth man of the year, is a free agent and even though he struggles in the postseason, expect multiple teams to be vying for his services. The Knicks are incredibly restricted due to their luxury tax complications and paying Smith $6 million a season could be out of their reach, which would mean a huge scoring hole off the bench would need to be filled.

Then there is the Amar'e Stoudemire situation. It's clear his knees are preventing him from contributing even slightly to his team's performance. What makes it worse is Stoudemire's uninsured, insane contract the Knicks have almost no hope of moving via trade. It was a $100 million (every penny of which was guaranteed), high stakes gamble that failed miserably. This will alter the Knicks thinking in free agency, making it almost impossible for them to attract the right pieces due to Amar'e extortionate salary.

It would be a surprise to see them dominate like they did at times last season. Yet with Carmelo Anthony as the catalyst, they can't be written off just yet.

Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_