The Miami Heat are the kings of the NBA as they begin their pursuit of a third consecutive championship when the 2013-14 campaign tips off on Tuesday night. But can any of the 31 would-be pretenders to the throne step up and prove they are merely mortal?
With the era’s transcendant player, LeBron James, still at the peak of his powers, few expect the Heat to cool off. In the pre-season poll of NBA General Managers, 75.9% thought they would complete a three-peat, with the next best pairing, Indiana and San Antonio, receiving a mere 6.9% of votes. Which is why Miami are 2.85 favourites for the title, well ahead of the pack.
But it is certainly not a done deal. It’s hard to say the champs have significantly improved this offseason, unless Greg Oden becomes a walking miracle and Mike Beasley remains a model citizen, and there is no sign that Dwyane Wade’s decline has stalled. And as the Spurs demonstrated in the 2013 Finals, there are vulnerabilities to be exploited.
San Antonio are 13.00 to go one better next June, offering the greatest value of the challengers. But if they are a proven commodity, everyone else among their peer group contains at least one X-factor. Oklahoma City, second favourites at 8.00, will not have Russell Westbrook until December (which is no big deal) but their bench looks very thin (which is).
Chicago, with Derrick Rose seemingly healthy, will have to readjust to the return of the 2012 MVP from a year out but they’ll be hungry to excel. While the new-look LA Clippers (10.00) and Brooklyn Nets (11.00) could just as easily be busts as booms.
Indiana at 14.00 and Memphis at 25.00 should not be under-estimated again but neither look to have quite enough to storm Miami. Expect the Heat to remain as the hottest thing on South Beach.
Atlantic Division: Brooklyn (1.45)
Bringing in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Celtics is the mother of all gambles but the Nets have thrown the dice, also adding Andrei Kirilenko to the mix. What they need, however, is Deron Williams to prove he can be a team-first player and for rookie coach Jason Kidd to illustrate that he doesn’t still remain the best point guard for this roster. Don’t entirely write off New York (2.60) just yet, while Toronto are poised to move out away from the basement. As for Boston and Philadelphia, there are few comforts to hold onto.
Central Division: Indiana (2.35)
Consistency is the reason why the Pacers can prevail in the regular season ahead of Chicago (1.65), even though the title potential of the Bulls ultimately looks stronger. Cleveland, at 25.00, will make up ground but they’re not ready to join the party. Milwaukee and Detroit are building for the future and can only sell hope.
Southeast Division: Miami (1.01)
The Heat can’t be beat, it’s that simple. Atlanta and Washington could sneak into the playoffs if they can find some consistency while Orlando and Charlotte will again wallow in misery.
Overall Conference winner: Miami (1.68)
Northwest Division: Oklahoma City (1.16)
Figure the Thunder to be inconsistent until Westbrook returns and in any other division, that could cost them down the stretch. But Denver look to have regressed, Minnesota have not improved enough, and Utah and Portland remain off the pace.
Pacific Division: LA Clippers (1.40)
It’s a two-way race between the Clippers and Golden States Warriors with Sacramento, Phoenix and the LA Lakers all destined for oblivion. The Warriors should take further striders this season but the Clips are a class above.
Southwest Division: San Antonio (2.40)
This figures to be the toughest group with New Orleans due a major improvement and even Dallas with points to prove. San Antonio’s consistency should see them prevail at 2.40 ahead of Memphis and Houston.
Overall Conference Winner: Oklahoma City (3.50)