Today we wrap up our Contender Previews, in which we look at challengers to the Lakers' throne in the upcoming season. Up today we have.... ugh.
All right, guys. I'm no more thrilled about this than you are, but we knew this conversation was coming. It's time to talk about the Miami Heat.
There's no need to rehash their offseason. If you've been alive and paying even the slightest attention to the basketball world, you're familiar with every detail - from the Chris Bosh announcement, to "The Decision," to Dan Gilbert's Comic Sans letter, to Pat Riley's signing of various bits and pieces to fill in the roster. In the history of sports, never have so many pixels been spilled over a team that hasn't actually played a game that counts.
A part of me would love to ignore this entire odious crew until they visit Staples Center on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, we as Laker fans don't have that luxury. Throughout the season ahead, and in all likelihood for a few seasons to come, the Lakers and Heat and will be linked in a state of opposition. Every move that one team makes, and every game that they play, will bear on the fortunes of the other. Both franchises are mobilizing huge resources toward the goal of winning an NBA championship, and there's only one of those to go around in any given year. Today's version of the Lakers exists for the sole purpose of completing a three-peat, and although the Heat aren't the only obstacle in the way, they're pretty clearly the most formidable.
The Heat will begin the season at less than full strength. Not that Laker fans stewing over Andrew Bynum's near-constant health issues should feel any sympathy, but Dwayne Wade has been out since their preseason opener with a hamstring injury, and on Wednesday Mike Miller hurt the thumb on his shooting hand. Wade will be back soon, but Miller could be out a couple months. That shouldn't really be such a big deal in terms of integrating everyone. Miller's job is to hit open outside shots, so if his thumb doesn't suffer any long-term effects and he remembers where to find the three-point line when he's back on the court, he'll be easy enough to plug back in.
Anyhow, why are we talking about Mike Miller? What's important is how Bosh, Wade and LeBron James - who without question comprise a historically awesome collection of frontline talent - will function on the floor together. No one really knows yet, because the three played with each other for about 12 seconds before Wade got hurt. What seems likely, though, is that LeBron will serve as the de facto point guard most of the time he's in the game. There's no point pretending that he'll be less than fantastic in that role. LeBron has terrific floor vision and passing touch and he's a beast to stop when driving into the lane. Defenses could focus on him almost exclusively when he was in Cleveland. Now that he's got some All-Star teammates alongside him, he'll enjoy a freedom of movement that he never imagined.
Wade, who himself has played at an MVP level the past two seasons, I suspect will be off the ball when paired with LeBron and then slide over to the point when LeBron's on the bench. Bosh, for his part, won't get nearly the touches he did in Toronto but should flourish with so much defensive attention given to his two costars. It really is staggering to think that at any given moment at least one of LeBron, Wade and Bosh will be on the floor, and most of the time at least two of them will be.
Things start to look a bit shakier for the Heat as you scroll down the roster. The cap situation forced Riles to stock up on low-cost (read: old) vets whose skillsets range from "meh" all the way down to "Juwan Howard." Miller is a respectable fourth option, but who knows when he'll be back? Mario Chalmers regressed last year after a promising rookie season. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Udonis Haslem and Eddie House all have their uses, but age-wise they're all on the unhappy side of 30. They won't stop Miami from winning 65 games in the regular season, but come the late playoff rounds, at some point one or more of them will be called on to make a crucial play.
I'm also not totally sold on the Miami defense. Basketball Prospectus (whose season preview book I encourage you to pick up) predicts that Miami will lead the league in defensive efficiency this year. That's based on Eric Spoelstra's strong track record of coaching defense - the Heat were fourth in the league last season - plus, of course, the addition of a superelite defender in James. I get that, but at the same time I see vulnerabilities in the middle. How do the Heat plan to solve Dwight Howard or a Pau Gasol-Andrew Bynum-Lamar Odom combo attack?
These issues aside, it's hard not to look ahead to next June and imagine how a Lakers-Heat Finals would unfold. If you set out to construct a roster to defeat this Miami team, the Lakers are pretty close to what you'd wish for. They have top perimeter defenders in Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest, tall and athletic power forwards to guard Bosh in Gasol and Odom and (health permitting) a big, offensively skilled center in Andrew Bynum that Miami can't really match. Miami's core talent is younger and thus a better bet to reach the Finals in full health. Absent significant injuries on either side, though, I'd still give the edge to the defending champs.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.