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By Josh Baumgard
MIAMI (CBSMiami) – “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”
John Wooden’s words should be embodied by this particular Miami Heat team; especially with the squad setting its sights on the first back-to-back championship in Miami professional sports since the 1973 Dolphins.
However, history reveals a scary precedent for such an endeavor.
In 2007, immediately after winning their first championship, the Heat were swept in the first round of the playoffs. Game one of that season was all the more frightening after suffering the worst defeat for a defending NBA champion on opening day in league history.
No one questions the talent on the current roster, yet the opposition will certainly test their resiliency. Are they hungry enough to stay at the top of the mountain?
Let’s take a look at who poses the greatest threat in their journey to repeat.
1. Oklahoma City
Make no mistake about it, the Thunder – not the Lakers – remain the Heat’s greatest rival for the 2013 title. Despite coming up a bit short, valuable experience was added to a supremely talented core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka.
Despite losing to Miami in five games, the 2012 Finals was much closer than most remember. Three of Miami’s wins came by six points or less.
They’ve also undergone the pain of losing on the final stage just as the Heat did the year before.
2. Los Angeles (Lakers)
Most had no problem catapulting the Lakers into tops in the West as soon as Dwight Howard joined ship.
But the Bynum for Howard swap isn’t as large of an upgrade as one might think. While Howard is definitively the better defensive player, Bynum is much more well rounded on the offensive end. Either would benefit from the likes of Steve Nash, and that will be the key.
Nash is arguably the best pure shooter in NBA history. He has 16 years of experience and makes this team much more savvy.
Despite the sexy makeover, their only prayer of winning it all is for Kobe Bryant to sacrifice touches and points. I’m not sure Kobe Bryant has that in him.
It’s a scary team on paper, but if Kobe continues to be a ball stopper, they endure the same feat as past seasons.
Can Rajon Rondo carry the elderly Celtics? That’s what it will come down to.
There are doubts about whether he can be the lead on a contender. He has the ability but does he have the leadership? Can he put the petty off-court issues aside for the greater good? Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still effective but they cannot carry this team anymore.
Whether Ray Allen’s departure hurts them depends heavily on the joint impact of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. Both can shoot the rock and Lee can defend the perimeter.
A lot of question marks with gang green but none larger than whether Garnett can sustain his stellar play from last season.
4. San Antonio
They’re old. They’re slow. Everyone doubts them every summer.
But when the season unfolds they’re always right there in the thick of Western Conference race. The key will be developing the youth (Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard) while keeping the elderly (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli) fresh. None is better at the task than Greg Popovich.
While not as juicy on paper as the Lakers, the Spurs are far from innocuous. The clock is ticking.
There is a lot to like with the Pacers, though their roster is mostly unchanged.. They have one of the better young centers in the game in Roy Hibbert. They took the Bosh-less Heat to six games in last year’s playoffs. They’re young as a whole.
The question is what is their ceiling with this current roster? Will they be like the Hawks of years past – good but never great? Or can they develop into a contender a la the Thunder?
Their immediate improvement lies heavily on the development of third year wing Paul George. He has the versatile skill set to be a cornerstone in this league. How bad he wants it, and how hard he worked this summer on refining his game will tell Indy’s tale.