Beating the Heat won't be easy

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Can the Bulls figure out a way for Derrick Rose to not fade into the background against LeBron James?

It's hard to argue, disagree or find fault with anyone who believes the Miami Heat won't three-peat this season. It's happened only five times in the game's history -- by four teams that probably would have finished the Heat off in three games if they were ever to play each other.

This doesn't necessarily mean the Heat are vulnerable, it just speaks to everything that happened in the offseason and all of the changes put in place by other teams to go after the hardware Miami has been holding hostage for the past two seasons.

The reality is this:

1. There aren't any teams in the NBA as the season opens that are better than the Heat and …

2. Only one team -- in the end -- will have made the right moves to defeat them.

The Realists

Case in point: the San Antonio Spurs. People can say age is what will finally catch up to the Spurs this season and stop them from winning the West, but it will be much deeper than that. The team that pushed the Heat to the limit last season, only to gift-wrap a title for them, is not the same team that returns, so don't expect them in the Finals again. As great a coach as Gregg Popovich is, he exposed his weaknesses in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals. More than anything that the Heat's Ray Allen did, it was Pop's out-of-character coaching decisions (running the offense through Manu Ginobili while knowing Ginobili wasn't playing well, sitting Tim Duncan and Tony Parker during critical moments, etc.) that failed the Spurs. 

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The Spurs, and Manu Ginobili, likely won't get a shot at defeating the Heat in the playoffs.

On the other side of the spectrum are the Chicago Bulls. A returning Derrick Rose is the only player in the league who can claim MVP honors over LeBron James in the past five seasons. Rose is on a mission to win a ring this season before the team is gutted by expiring contracts and trade discussions.

The Bulls are hungry and prideful. They are the team in the East least likely to be impressed by the Heat. But while their defense shines, the Bulls have yet to counter what happens to their offense when James decides to do to Rose what Scottie Pippen eventually did to Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals. Johnson wasn't used to players with his size and quickness guarding him, not for full games and not back-to-back-to-back-to-back games in a playoff series. Rose is not used to anyone bigger and stronger guarding him who can match him in both speed and explosiveness. James is the only player who can do that. He's the only one who can make it very difficult for Rose to be Rose.

Until they find a way to make Rose's life less miserable in the playoffs, the outcome runs a very strong chance of being the same as past two times the Bulls faced the Heat – even with Rose back.

Which brings us to the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were supposed to be on everyone's short list of Eastern Conference teams to possibly stop the Heat from making it to the Finals. Then, an 0-5 start to the preseason – before winning the final three games -- has everyone, outside of the 317 area code, backtracking.

Yes, Larry Bird has returned to his rightful place as president of basketball operations. Until the organization makes a concrete decision on what it's going to do with -- or without -- Danny Granger this season, the Pacers could be the team that is to 2013-14 what the Lakers were to the 2012-13 season: one of the most underachieving in history.

Then there's the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies -- three teams that if everything goes as planned, at least one should be balling in June. Which one will be the team that can best convince itself it is better than any team it'll have to face in the Finals?

The Clips are in the best position to be that team. They added Doc Rivers as coach, replaced Eric Bledsoe with Darren Collison, added J.J. Redick to the starting lineup and no longer have Lamar Odom's issues to deal with. The Thunder, even when Russell Westbrook returns, are going to miss not having a James Harden-type on their roster, especially in a seven-game series with a title on the line. And anyone who thinks the Grizzlies aren't going to miss coach Lionel Hollins is delusional. It's very hard to win in the NBA by subtraction. That math usually doesn't lie.

The Enigmas

The Houston Rockets have no idea which version of Dwight Howard they are going to get and for how long the good/bad version will last each time he appears. They still don't know what to do with the point guard spot. Yes, Jeremy Lin is supposed to be that guy, but Patrick Beverley has become that dude. For Kevin McHale, who is most comfortable as a "big man" coach, two nearly equal point guards vying for starter is the last headache he wants.

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Which version of Dwight Howard will show up for the Rockets?

The New York Knicks don't necessarily have those problems, but they do have ongoing, carryover situations from last season that re-signing J.R. Smith probably made worse. For true Knicks fans -- and probably Knicks players -- this is the love/hate relationship that has to reach the point of hate for the love to even begin to make sense. Smith could be in the MVP conversation all season long, but if one bad playoff game (or moment) can send him spiraling out of control like it did last season, then how is a team trying to contend going to put faith and trust in him? And the bad part is, that wasn't an anomaly for Smith.

The Brooklyn Nets' mysterious state, though different from that of their crosstown Rhamnousia, remains one that can't be ignored. Can heart and pride be coached? Or is it something that has to be discovered from within?

The Nets went out of the first round of the playoffs last season to a Bulls team that had no business even competing with the dilapidated roster they put on the floor. Even the add-ons of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce may not be able to help the Nets. Rookie coach Jason Kidd could reveal the greatest basketball mind since Chuck Daly and still not get past the fact that he's inherited a team that claims they don't want to die but doesn't have it in them to kill off an opposing playoff team. They need to learn from "Boardwalk Empire": You can't be half a gangster.

Finally, there are the Golden State Warriors. The scariest team of any mentioned here. The team that, if it's 100 percent healthy going into the playoffs, no team will want to face. The only true foreseeable problem with the Warriors, even with adding Andre Iguodala, is that when it comes down to it, they are going to miss not having Jarrett Jack on the floor in crucial moments of conflict. He was as important to their future success as Derek Fisher was to those past Phil Jackson Lakers teams that won rings. And there's no replacing that; not on this squad, not for this season.

The Outsiders (Looking In)

Lost but not forgotten are teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, the Detroit Pistons and the Minnesota Timberwolves -- all squads not in position to throne-snatch, but also not to be ignored.

Adding Monta Ellis to the Mavs makes them worthy, just not royalty. He is a legit counter-scorer to play with Dirk Nowitzki (if only the Lakers had done this for Kobe) who gives the Mavs more than a solo option on offense.

As far as the Pistons and the Timberwolves are concerned: Pay attention.

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Watching the Pistons blossom this season should be a great show.

Each team is rising like actor Michael Fassbender. Each team is the "dark horse" of its conference that will not only make significant strides from last season but also will be worth watching. True, the Warriors could be "the New Showtime," as dubbed by Sports Illustrated, but there's something sexy about instead watching a team like the Pistons or Wolves blossom and find itself in front of your eyes. It's like saying you knew who Fassbender was before "Fish Tank."

And in all seriousness, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't that far behind in the dark horse category. If they get -- and can stay -- healthy. Seriously. Drafting Anthony Bennett and adding Andrew Bynum to accent the level of greatness Kyrie Irving is about to reach could make it really easy for Cleveland to say "no" to LeBron if/when/once he decides he wants to go back home to finish his career.

The Denver Nuggets made mistakes by letting George Karl and Iguodala go. The Atlanta Hawks lost Josh Smith and got no one of equal impact in return. The Boston Celtics lost everyone except Rajon Rondo. The Utah Jazz lost Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. And those Los Angeles Lakers? They lost it all when they lost Kobe. Regardless of when he comes back. Their season officially ends opening night.

The Throne

That's how things appear for those looking to dethrone the Miami Heat. They added Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, which will make them more complete, but they're less dangerous without Mike Miller for clutch situations. Still, the one thing that was learned about the Heat last season is how they played better when their backs were against the wall.

This is not something a team wants to carry as a badge of honor or something they would want to continue to test, but it is something that keeps them in a series they should have already lost. It's something that makes it impossible for teams playing them to forget or overcome.

More important, it is an advantage the best team in the NBA should not have at their disposal. Especially when no other team in the NBA has an intangible close to match it.

It's the "haves" versus the "have nots." Very few haves; far more haven'ts. If anyone claims they know the end of this NBA season, his or her name must be Nate Silver. But don't be surprised if there's a parade in L.A. in June. Blue and red confetti, not purple and gold. 

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