Photo: Miami Heat forward LeBron James goes to the basket as Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) watches during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, in Washington. The Wizards won 100-82. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
"Coming out of a lot of camps, we’ve heard our name a lot, so we know," LeBron James told the media in response to the proverbial target on the backs of the defending back-to-back champions, Miami Heat.
The reigning and 4-time MVP is aware of the arduous road ahead for him and his squad. As far as “three-peats” go, only three NBA franchises have achieved such distinction: The Lakers did it twice during 1952-54 and 2000-02, the Celtics in 1959-66 (8-straight), and the Bulls in 1991-93 and 1996-98.
James, however, is unfazed and threw caution to the wind for those aiming at his head and wish to thwart the Heat’s drive to become the fourth franchise to join the elite list of winners by stating his best has yet to come.
''I got better,'' said James, who will be re-entering free agency at the end of the 2013-14 season. ''I'm a better basketball player than I was last year, in every aspect.''
James approaches the challenge head on, and whether his beliefs are to fire himself and his team even more to rise to the occasion, he more than welcomes the idea of being the hunted.
"There are a lot of teams that want to knock us off. There are a couple of teams in the East that hate us. And we know who they are," James said, and then answered a question about brewing rivalries with the Bulls and the Pacers by dismissing the thought altogether. "There's tension, but there's no rivalries."
With that being said, just who are legitimate threats to the Heat’s aspirations for a 3-peat? Here’s my list and breakdown:
San Antonio Spurs
Photo: Associated Press
Who better to put on top of this list than the team that was a couple of missed free throws, turnovers, and a Ray Allen corner-3 away from actually dethroning the Heat last season?
Gregg Popovich admits that he hasn’t truly gotten over the heartbreak of last season’s Finals-and how can you if you were a member or a fan of the Spurs? He hopes his men are having a similar difficulty and use it as motivation and get an opportunity for redemption.
Up 3-2 in the series with a 5-point lead and 28 seconds left before hoisting another title and prove, yet again, how teamwork and execution can overcome a team with superior talent, the Spurs made enough mistakes and left the door open for the Heat to show their championship determination and miraculously steal the crown right back.
The Spurs return with their core players after choosing to re-sign Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter in the offseason over snagging a major free agent like Monta Ellis or OJ Mayo. If this unit can stay healthy (primarily Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Ginobili), the Spurs figure to be the favorite to come out of the West with their time-tested efficiency and revitalized defense behind the emergence of third-year guard Kawhi Leonard and a healthy Duncan.
Marco Belinelli will look to fill the shooting void left by Gary Neal’s departure, while Jeff Ayres (formerly Pendergraph) comes in from the Pacers to provide some interior toughness and physicality off the bench.
Photo: Lynne Sladky / AP Photo
Though Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Finals duel with the Heat was a disaster, there’s no denying that the Pacers were a player or two away from completing the task.
If it weren’t for a couple of crucial possessions in Game 1 wherein Frank Vogel chose to keep Roy Hibbert out of the game and leave the rim conspicuously unprotected for James not to take advantage, the Pacers might’ve actually advanced.
No championships have actually been awarded based on what “coulda, woulda, shoulda”, and returning Pacers team president Larry Bird knows it all too well and wasted no time in addressing his teams needs and weaknesses.
The playoffs exposed the Pacers’ incompetent bench, which forced Vogel to give his starters extended minutes. It wasn’t any more evident than in Game 7 wherein the Heat raced to a double-digit lead in the second quarter and exploited the Pacers bench.
Out went the ineffective DJ Augustin, who never quite fit in Vogel’s system, together with Tyler Hansbrough, Gerald Green, and Sam Young-basically the entire second unit.
In are experienced backup point guard CJ Watson, crafty veteran Luis Scola, 3-point shooting and hustling power forward Chris Copeland, and Danny Granger who missed all but 5 games last season due to a bum left knee.
From being the team’s weakness, Bird effectively turned the Pacers’ bench into a potentially game-changing advantage with enough firepower and versatility that will surely pose problems for opposing teams’ second units.
The Pacers aren’t going anywhere any time soon either as they locked up key starters David West and All-Star Paul George, who had a breakthrough season last year, to multi-year deals.
With their bench issues addressed and another deep playoff run charged to experience, it remains to be seen if the Pacers can curb their offensive struggles and turnover woes with George Hill as their primary point man.
Hill has admittedly stated he isn’t ever going to be a natural point guard, and though he offers strengths with his size, length, offense and defense, oftentimes the Pacers offense dwindles to a staggering flow with players resorting to creating their own, and forcing shots with the clock winding down. As seen during last season’s playoffs, the Pacers’ best offense at times was a missed shot thanks to their size and ability to get offensive rebounds. That, however, did not and still won’t cut it.
Their first three preseason games have left much to be desired as they continue to turn the ball over and struggle with their execution. Whether Hill can get the job done or not will prove to be the key for this team to take the next step-unless Bird decides to pull the trigger and address one more weakness before the trade deadline.
Photo: Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose uses a softball to loosen up a muscle as he sits in front of the bench in the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Last season, the Bulls were without the NBA MVP from just a season prior and still went deep enough in the playoffs to make a lot of noise. The void Derrick Rose left due to his ACL injury allowed players like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson to grow and develop their game, while veterans Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng held fort and played through various injuries themselves.
This is practically the same unit - bettered by experience - who won a league-best 62 games two seasons ago. If they can stay healthy, Tom Thibodeau, Rose and co. can definitely give the Heat a run for their money and will be a nightmare on both ends of the court for any team come playoff time.
The main question for these Bulls other than staying healthy is their bench. They know what they can get from veterans like Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and offseason signee Mike Dunleavy, but will be relying on either rookies like Tony Snell and Erik Murphy or oldies such as Nazr Mohammed and Mike James for production in hopes to keep their starters’ minutes at a minimum during the regular season and help save them for the playoffs.
Photo: Brooklyn Nets' Joe Johnson, from left, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, head coach Jason Kidd, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez pose for a photo during the team's NBA basketball media day at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are bringing in their old Celtics-Heat rivalry with them to the Nets, and find themselves with the most potent cast they’ve had since winning the title for Boston in the 2007-08 season.
The Nets are stacked. Don’t be fooled by their collectively advanced age, these Nets can definitely bring a lot of bang for Russian team owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s big bucks.
They are deep and able in all positions. They have shooters, rebounders, championship experience, size, toughness, bench-you name it, they paid for it, and thus, they got it!
With a 100% Deron Williams running the point, these Nets are built for the playoffs. Rookie head coach Jason Kidd may very well be a perfect fit for this group of veterans as he himself understands the value of preserving his older players for the rigors of the playoffs, thanks to his firsthand experience. Having his former Nets coach Lawrence Frank on the sidelines to help him out doesn’t hurt either.
Garnett and Pierce, together with Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry will definitely benefit from having their younger leaders Williams and Brook Lopez carry the brunt of the load, as well as help elevate the duo’s overall performance by contributing their experience and savvy.
And don’t forget Joe Johnson, who can still light it up and cold-bloodedly knock down a game-winner on a nightly basis.
If they can stay healthy and execute seamlessly in the playoffs to manage the Heat’s transition game, don’t be surprised if these aging Nets get the last laugh when all is said and done. After all, it’s now or never for this group, more than any of the other listed contenders.
In my next column, I will enlist other threats to the Heat from the West, as well as other teams that may very well surprise a lot of people down the stretch. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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