A loss to the Mavericks was a cruel pill to swallow to end last season, but Miami enter as title favorites once again, and for good reason. The so called Big Three looked slick and deadly for large stretches of last season, with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade seemingly hashing out an acceptable balance of power. Overshadowed in the offseason by the free agency drama surrounding the likes of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, the Heat will be quietly determined to silence their numerous critics and claim the first of what they hope will be many championships.
If anything, an already devastatingly talented Miami team improved through the addition of Shane Battier, a tough, determined defender who adds an extra dimension to the Heat team that they didn't have last season. The team should also gel better together this year, when the harsh glare of the media spotlight should be less intense.
The only side in an Eastern Conference in flux that looks capable of going toe to toe with Miami are the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls. While the Heat managed to vanquish the Bulls en route to the Finals last season, Chicago have also had time to develop an understanding together as a team, and they arguably have greater depth as well. For the Heat, the specter of being unable to close out games is one that they will have to work to dispel; LeBron in particular will be looked upon to deliver in the clutch, after he disappointed late in games during the postseason.
Best Case: First
Although the Big Three have engendered some ill will among the public, there is no denying that, on their day, they are capable of downing any other team in the league. If they can keep clicking, they will cruise through the regular season, shortened though it may be. Miami also benefit from a weak Southeast Division, where the Hawks look solidly mediocre, and the Magic will almost certainly lose Dwight Howard within a few months.
Worst Case: Third
The Bulls are capable of matching the Heat’s firepower throughout the season, and the cramped schedule might play to the favor of Chicago’s youthful core. The only other team in the Eastern Conference that could possibly match Miami are the New York Knicks, and that's only if the “new Big Three” of Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler can overcome weakness elsewhere in the team. A long-term injury to someone like Wade and James is the only other scenario which would see the Heat drop to third.
Final Prediction: Second
The Heat’s quality is undeniable, and they will certainly be a threat in the playoffs. In such a rushed season, however, the Bulls look like they could be in prime position to repeat their feats of last year and finish ahead of Miami, in the regular season if not in the playoffs