After coming close to the title in 2011, the Heat's ascension to the throne season seemed almost preordained. Sure, there were some hiccups against the Pacers and they were pushed by the Celtics, but the title wasn't a surprise to basketball fans. If anything, the Finals loss the previous year to Dallas and the tough series this last spring have likely made them tougher and more battle-ready. The question going forward becomes whether they can add more hardware to the trophy case, and to that end they've certainly taken steps to avoid complacency. They have held together their supporting cast, and the signing of Ray Allen gives them a fourth strong scoring option.
The Heat's offseason moves have, at least on paper, made a strong team even stronger. Mike Miller and his balky back may not provide an injection of scoring like last season, but Allen's signing takes away that sting. Assuming that the Heat have done nothing to hurt their chances, their biggest threat will come from other teams that have matured another year or have made moves to improve their own chances. Here we look at the four teams with the best chance to prevent Miami from a repeat:
4) Los Angeles Clippers
Within in a short period of time, the Clips have gone from being a laughingstock to becoming a real threat. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin provide potent offense and plenty of highlight material, but this is not a two-man team. Chauncey Billups may not be ready for the beginning of the season, so the Clippers went out and got Jamal Crawford as insurance. With small forward Caron Butler also returning and Lamar Odom having signed to back up the two forward spots, the Clippers should not lack for offense. They ranked in the top five in points per possession last season, and should be equally efficient in 2012.
If they're going to make it out of a tough Western Conference, the biggest area for improvement will have to be team defense. Despite the presence of Griffin and a decent center in Deandre Jordan, the Clips were in the middle of the pack when it came to rebounds on the defensive end. They also gave up too many points per opponent's possession, and that problem needs to be corrected to get past teams like the Lakers and Thunder. The Clippers may be a top-five team next season, but they're also likely still the second-best team in L.A.
3) Boston Celtics
If losing Ray Allen was like being stabbed, then losing him to the Heat was like having that knife twisted. Fortunately for the Celtics they still have Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and they didn't let the loss of Allen hamper their efforts to improve their team in the offseason. Jason Terry will turn 35 this year, but he still shot almost 38% on threes last season and should replace Allen's scoring. Courtney Lee was a savvy signing, as he can provide strong minutes filling in for Pierce, and for either Terry or the enigmatic Avery Bradley at the shooting guard spot. Rondo has become one of the premier passing point guards in the league, and has shown the ability to take over games.
Although the raw numbers had them in the top ten for rebounds last season, the Celtics were not an efficient team on the boards. That weakness was exposed in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they outrebounded the Heat only once in their seven-game series. Any team hoping to beat Miami will have to prevent second-chance scoring, and the drafting of Jared Sullinger may help with team rebounding. The Celtics still miss the defensive presence of the departed Kendrick Perkins, and two of their three stars are quite clearly past their peak. If there are any major injuries to their current Big Three, the Celtics are likely done.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder
Everyone knows what the Thunder can bring. The incredible offensive play of Kevin Durant, awesome team speed, a gamebreaker in Russell Westbrook, an Olympian (James Harden) coming off the bench, and strong defenders in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. This is a team that ranked highly in both offensive and defensive ratings during the 2011 season, and one that put up a strong fight against the eventual champion Heat in the Finals. Anyone who has watched the Thunder over the past three seasons would have noticed a very steady improvement.
Given that they were one questionable call away from going up 2-0 on Miami, the Thunder's quiet offseason makes sense. They made low-risk moves in signing big men Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton, and anything they get from them would be gravy for an already-strong team. The biggest question for this group is whether they continue to improve as they gain that additional year of maturity, especially with a player like Westbrook who had some shaky Finals games. Even if they fail to take that title step in 2012-13, this is a team poised to challenge for a championship consistently over the next five years.
1) Los Angeles Lakers
As recently as this year's playoffs, the Lakers really looked like a team on the downswing. Kobe Bryant was still great at age 34, and Pau Gasol had another strong season, but there just seemed to be something lacking despite a first-place finish. Andrew Bynum spent much of his time being accused of only playing on nights when he felt like making an effort, Gasol was criticized for being soft, and Lakers fans who remember the days of Magic Johnson had to be gritting their teeth watching Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake run the point. For most fans, it wasn't really a surprise to see the Lakers go out quickly against Oklahoma City.
Now, contrast that disappointing end to the 2011-12 season with the current outlook. First it was the signing of Steve Nash, providing Kobe with his first true point guard since playing with Nick Van Exel back in the late 1990s. And more recently, there is the blockbuster deal that not only frees the Lakers from having to manage the often-frustrating Bynum, but that also brings Dwight Howard to town. The Heat have proven that they can win against any lineup, but it's still intriguing thinking of any team having to win a series by scoring and rebounding inside against a combination of Howard and Gasol, with Kobe and World Peace providing exterior defense. The two biggest threats to the Lakers making it out of the West would seem to be a maturing Thunder team, and the possibility of injuries given Nash's advanced age (38) and back issues. That said, Nash still averaged almost 11 APG last season and should provide a spark to an offense that was fairly effective even without him.
So what will happen in the 2012-13 season? Nothing is entirely predictable, but given how great teams have taken steps to make themselves even better, it's tough to imagine a dark horse team surprising everyone. The Pacers had a good playoff run but just don't have the horses, the Bulls are not a contender without Derrick Rose, and the Spurs' stars seemed to have their last hurrah in the first two rounds of this year's playoffs. The Nets have improved significantly, as have some others, but not enough to seriously challenge this upcoming season.
Barring serious injuries to any of their Big 3, it's tough to imagine the Heat not advancing to the Finals against either the Lakers or OKC. If that happens, a seven-game series could really go either way. Whatever happens in the Finals, NBA fans should be in for a treat in next year's playoffs. We're fortunate as fans to have several truly elite teams in the league, meaning that even non-Finals series like Thunder-Lakers, Heat-Celtics or Clippers-Lakers could be as intriguing as a championship series. Betting on a winner at this point is a fool's gamble, but it's a safe bet that we should have exciting playoffs in the spring of 2013.