WHAT TO EXPECT FROM MIAMI
IAN THOMSEN: I'm sure it will depend on the health of their stars and how cautious they'll be with Dwyane Wade in particular. But they're going to basically kill everybody. Think about how defenses would load up on Wade or LeBron James and each would still get his 25-35 while leading Miami or Cleveland to victory more often than not. Now the defense can't focus on LeBron or Wade or Chris Bosh, so they're going to feel like the doughnut just came off the bat. They'll have space that they haven't seen in years.
This is a details-fixated franchise that tends to max out its talent during the 82-game season. I'm convinced the Heat are going to run away with the No. 1 seed overall. The playoffs may be a different story, but we aren't going to see chemistry issues among their three guys because they're going to make the game seem easy most nights during the regular season.
CHRIS MANNIX: Ian's right: Miami is going to run away with the top seed in the East. I'm thinking 70 wins is a nice number with a legitimate chance at toppling the Bulls' record 72-win mark. But I'm interested to see how the supporting cast -- namely Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony and James Jones -- jells over the course of the season. Smacking around the Detroits, New Jerseys and Torontos is one thing; but Miami is going to need more than James, Wade and Bosh to take down the Celtics, Magic and Lakers.
THOMSEN: This is one area where I'm going to differ with Chris -- they aren't going to break the Bulls' record. Those Bulls had been together a long time, which gave them an advantage of being able to play off each other effortlessly. Miami won't have that strength of understanding. Plus, I suspect Miami is going to rest its stars whenever there is a hint of injury, and that conservative approach to health is likely to cost it a few regular-season wins in exchange for its larger goal of being strong for the postseason.
JENKINS: Chris raises a good point in that the Heat's flaws -- if they even have any -- might not be exposed in the regular season because they will win so many games and spend so much time crushing inferior opponents. I'm not sure how good that is for their long-term health, because come playoff time, they will be facing other elite teams that have identified and addressed their shortcomings. The Heat may never be forced to do that. To advance in the playoffs, I have to believe they will need a couple big men to emerge, obviously not as scorers, but guys who can bang with Boston and Orlando and neutralize them a little on the glass.
Also, if/when the Heat do get in close games, I'm curious to see the dynamic between LeBron and Wade. After LeBron's announcement, he talked about wanting to be a facilitator, like a modern-day Magic Johnson. But judging from the preseason -- which I understand is a dangerous thing to do -- it looks like he is still going to dominate the ball and show that nobody can stop him. In the end, that may be the best strategy, but I wonder how Wade will fit into it. Again, they probably won't face many situations where it matters, at least until spring. Then they may have to figure it out on the fly.
HEAT'S BIGGEST THREAT
MANNIX: Matching up with size figures to be Miami's Achilles' heel, so, in the East, you have to put Boston and Orlando at the top of the list. I'm a big fan of the Celtics' three-headed center rotation of Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and (eventually) Kendrick Perkins. Each has a different set of skills that will be prove to be valuable. And there is no one on the Heat roster who can match up with Dwight Howard one-on-one. If Boston or Orlando can turn Miami into jump shooters, the Heat could be in trouble.
ZACH LOWE: Boston has the big bodies, but it has to be worried that Heat could really clamp down on its perimeter game by having Wade or James defend Rajon Rondo the same way Kobe Bryant did in the Finals: by sagging several feet off of Rondo and daring him to hit jump shots. Miami used Wade on Rondo for stretches in the first round last season, and Boston has never found a consistent solution for that style of defense. Combine that with the way James shut down Paul Pierce in the conference semis, and Boston could have a really tough time scoring.
JENKINS: Of East teams,Chicago could at least test them when Carlos Boozer is healthy. That might be a fun 1-4 matchup in the playoffs, though the Heat probably have too much offense. I agree with Chris about the Celtics. They can throw so many big bodies out there that they should be able to wear down anybody inside. And they're such a proud group you know they're not going to give up Eastern Conference supremacy without a vicious fight. Every game against the Heat will be personal for them.
LOWE: Orlando is a more interesting case to me. The Magic have Howard, the one player for whom the Heat really don't have an answer, and they have a system on both ends they execute well and consistently. They obviously don't have Miami's superstar talent -- Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson have proved merely "good" or "very good" at this point in their careers. But I like the idea of a System vs. Superstars battle, and I think Orlando could give the Heat problems.
THOMSEN: Miami -- a healthy Miami -- will go into every game in the East figuring it controls the matchups. When the Heat play against Boston, LeBron is going to feel he can outproduce Pierce, and the same goes for Wade vs. Ray Allen and Bosh vs. Kevin Garnett. Their biggest worry is going to be dealing with Rondo, but they'll feel like they have a majority of the matchups covered. If they can beat the Celtics, then they're probably going to win the conference. Boston creates the most worries of any team in the East because if the Celtics can slow down the game and pound it inside to their big men, they can reduce the open-floor advantages held by James and Wade in particular.
The other possibility is that Miami won't play as a team. If James and Wade can't figure out how to play together fluidly, the contenders that have been together for a while and know how to move the ball -- Boston and Orlando -- can beat them.
The only team in the league that is likely to dominate the matchups against Miami is the Lakers -- Pau Gasol beats Bosh, Kobe beats Wade (we can't predict Wade wins that matchup; that's a title he'll have to earn in an NBA Finals) and Ron Artest reduces LeBron's numbers. Then you throw in AndrewBynum winning his matchup, the Lakers' point guards winning theirs, and you also have to say the Lakers have the better bench around Lamar Odom.
Miami is going to have to be playing at a very high level to overcome those problems and beat the Lakers.