With the NBA season set to tip-off, we asked TSN NBA experts Jack Armstrong, Josh Lewenberg and Duane Watson a few burning questions about the year ahead. Today we ask: which teams pose the biggest threat to Miami's three-peat aspirations?
Duane Watson's take: No team in the league can stop LeBron James, but this may be the first time his Miami Heat face a legitimate threat from within their own conference.
First and foremost, the team they have knocked out of the playoffs the last two years, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Paul George has emerged as a franchise player, Lance Stephenson has become a solid rotational player, and the Pacers retooled their bench with the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson.
They did that all without All-Star Forward Danny Granger who was out with a left knee injury, if Granger comes back as 75 percent of the player he was, he'll be a solid addition off the bench.
Look for Coach Frank Vogel and his "smashmouth basketball" to upset the Heat and make their first trip to the NBA Finals in more a decade.
Other challengers include a healthy Chicago Bulls with a rejuvenated Derrick Rose in the line-up. In 2011, they lost to the Heat 4-1 in the Conference Finals, but they didn't have a defensive stopper like Jimmy Butler on the wing then.
If the Brooklyn Nets can gel and be healthy rolling into the playoffs, the combination of All-Star players like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, with the veteran experience of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilienko may pose some problems.
In the Western Conference, you can't count out the San Antonio Spurs (ever), who were one rebound away from winning the NBA Final before falling in Game 7. Lastly, don't underestimate the Golden State Warriors who have little problem putting points on the board, and added an All-NBA defensive player in Andre Iguodala to their line-up.
Josh Lewenberg's take: Even if the reigning, two-time champs are on cruise control until April it's hard to imagine any team, in either conference besting their record in an 82-game season.
After three years together they are a well-oiled machine. Unlike the Nets, for instance, there's no adjustment time required here. This is the same team that won 66-games a year ago and another 60-win season is well within reach. A full season with Birdman on board and a couple low-risk, high-reward signings in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley can only help their cause. They're too talented, too deep and too familiar with each other.
Fast forward to the spring and that's where things could get interesting. As always, the loaded Western Conference will produce a legitimate contender to the throne. The Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, even the Grizzlies and Warriors could all be in the mix.
The Heat's stiffest competition may reside in the East though.
After a four-to-five game cakewalk in the first round, the Heat should immediately be put to work. Evident in last year's seven-game Eastern Conference Finals, the size and physicality of the Pacers – now featuring an improved bench and a returning Danny Granger (maybe) – could be Miami's kryptonite.
Similarly, the Bulls – with a healthy Derrick Rose – should have the personnel and defensive wherewithal to challenge the champs.
With their talent, depth and experience, the Nets are the wildcard in this scenario. Will they have all the kinks worked out come April?
Jack Armstrong's take: In the East I really like Chicago and Indiana to push Miami this season.
A healthy Derrick Rose and the addition of Mike Dunleavy will make this existing unit much more potent offensively and efficient. The Bulls have a winning culture, an outstanding Coach in Tom Thibodeau and a fan base that demands/expects excellence. It should be a fun time in the 'Windy City'.
The Pacers made a savvy move by picking up Luis Scola as a backup forward. He's slowed down a bit but is still one of the more crafty front court guys in the NBA. Danny Granger needs to stay healthy and be a pro about his role changing with the emergence of Paul George - be efficient and explosive. The Pacers have lots of Playoffs experience and they've reawakened their fan base that bailed out after the 'Malice in the Palace'. They guard and have enough scoring. They will be a tough out.
The Nets made some flashy moves and the acquisitions of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko give them a major talent upgrade. The question is, can they stay healthy all year? If so, they are a dangerous squad. There is lots of pressure on Coach Jason Kidd in his first year. It is a small window here.
The Knicks have more than enough scoring, but will they play as a team and share the ball and guard you in crunch time? There is enough talent there to beat anyone on any given night but also lose to the dregs because they play too much on their 'Talent' and not enough on the little details that define winning. Coach Mike Woodson has to demand even more and better from this team. It's there but sometimes they lose their focus.
In the West, the Spurs will be right there again due to their amazing veteran cast, coaching and the 'Residue of Winning' that exists there. Kawhi Leonard really improved last year and is a keeper.
The Rockets, with the addition of Dwight Howard, will be improved. The more efficient the 3-point shooting around him is, the better he'll be if he sees a lot of single coverage in the post. He'll change their team defensively and they'll hold you to one shot more often.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have two of the more dynamic players in the NBA today in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Who picks up the slack with the trade of James Harden and then Kevin Martin's free-agent departure? Only time will tell. The Thunder hold an incredible home court advantage and will be heard from in late May/early June. They're still a contender but the margin of error has decreased significantly.
The Clippers could be the best team in the West with the additions of coach Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Darren Collison to an already talented squad. If Chris Paul stays upright they have a great shot.
Memphis will be a really hard team to beat due to the Power game and solid defense.
At the end of the day in the West, I feel the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers would be the teams that could hang with Miami but the Heat are still the best.