Obviously, the Miami Heat are overwhelming favorites to win the Eastern Conference and the NBA championship this season. The bizarre struggles of the 2011 NBA Finals are but a distant memory, and given Derrick Rose's injury, Dwight Howard's Westward travels and Boston's inability to crack the Heat in the past two postseasons, Miami is without an Eastern rival. The Thunder and Lakers loom large as potential Finals matchups, but that's a long time from now. Until proven otherwise, it's the Heat's title to lose.
Can anything derail what seems like inevitability? Oh, I think so ...
* Dwight Howard. Remember when Roy Hibbert made Miami sweat in the second round of the East playoffs last spring? Dwight Howard is a lot better than Roy Hibbert, and the Heat have avoided Orlando in the past two playoff runs. They may not avoid the Lakers this postseason. The Heat struggle defending one type of player, and one type of player only: low-post centers. The best one in the game just joined a juggernaut. That's real.
Speaking of ...
* Andrew Bynum and Roy Hibbert. The East isn't exactly a wasteland for true centers, and Philadelphia and Indiana should be near the top of the conference. (In fact, I picked those teams for Nos. 2 and 3 behind Miami.) It bears watching in regular-season matchups.
* Ray Allen and Shane Battier??? Allen is one of the most routine-obsessed players in the league -- he carries his own Bisquick on the road so he can ensure he can have pancakes every day, and he wears arm sleeves because it freaked him out when Rip Hamilton would (intentionally) scratch him. Battier hates wasting time so much that he sprints in and out of huddles. I'm imagining either one turning into Gretchen Wieners the first time Dwyane Wade wears suspenders and rain boots to the arena. "YOU CAN'T PLAY WITH US!"
* Dwyane Wade. We know these things: Wade has always played a reckless style, Wade is the oldest of Miami's three superstars, Wade is coming off of a knee injury and without Wade, the Heat are elite but not quite THE MIAMI HEAT. If Chris Bosh has always been the weakest of the three stars, Wade has always been the one most at risk of injury. That hasn't changed. In fact, due to the very nature of time, it's increased.
* The promise of global domination. The Heat will visit the White House sometime this season. Assume President Obama wins the election. We know he's a major, major hoophead. LeBron is bent on global superstardom, which he is approaching. The President, finished with what will likely be his final election, might throw caution to the wind and take the opportunity to land the best pick-up teammate ever. What position would be high enough to lead to LeBron's instant retirement and acceptance of an administration position? U.S. ambassador to LIV? Supreme Court justice? Fashion czar? ('Melo is angry at my suggestion LeBron would get that appointment.) Bonus for Obama: A LeBron retirement helps the President's beloved Bulls.
* Pat Riley's debt. At some point, The Devil's gon' come callin', and The Devil gon' get paid. One way or another.
* Erik Spoelstra. This entry is not what you think it is. I think Spo is a great coach, maybe the second or third best in the league behind Gregg Popovich or perhaps Doc Rivers. But what if he gets full of himself? What if he fancies himself New Phil Jackson and starts overreaching the bounds of his position? What if he assigns Chris Bosh to read Wittgenstein and Chris Bosh is never the same? Never trust a smart overachiever. Human slackers are always the best bet.
* Miami Heat fans. Satisfied with another NBA championship, Heat fans decide to enjoy the 2012-13 season entirely via high-def television. The Heat are basically forced to play 80 road games as rival teams realize the opportunity to invade AmericanAirlines Arena. (Bobcats fans ignore the opportunity in the name of the Presti Plan.) Even the Heat cannot go .700 on the road. (OR CAN THEY?)
* Project Zero and the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets could be better than we think they'll be. And Brooklyn will have some advantages over Miami. For one, they have one of those pesky centers in Brook Lopez, who is admittedly a tier below Bynum and Hibbert (to the chagrin of Shaq). They also have Jay-Z in their corner; he's probably got an even better opportunity than Obama to convince LeBron to quit basketball. But most of all, the Nets have Andray Blatche, and we know BALTCHE does his best work in Miami. Especially on Tuesdays. Watch yourself, Heat. BALTCHE comin'.