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Barring a catastrophic injury or some other unforeseen development between now and Oct. 30, the Miami Heat will enter the regular season as the betting favorite to capture the 2013-14 NBA championship; at the moment, they're going off at a shade under 2-to-1, according to Bovada, significantly outpacing the site's No. 2 bet, the Oklahoma City Thunder (6-to-1). This is pretty reasonable — after all, the Heat have won the Eastern Conference three years in a row and won the last two NBA championships, and the team employs LeBron James, who is both the best basketball player in the world and in the prime of his career.
Beyond that, Miami also features Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who rank as arguably the league's best pair of supplemental offensive options and can provide game-changing defensive play when healthy and engaged. The Heat also return every key contributor to last year's title run save for Mike Miller, whom they amnestied back in July and who later signed with the Memphis Grizzlies. (Pat Riley responded by adding Greg Oden and Michael Beasley to pick up Miller's "myriad injuries" and "fun hairstyle" slack.) While there aren't any lead-pipe locks in the NBA, you'd be hard-pressed to find too many folks who'd look askance at picking the Heat to go back-to-back-to-back.
Count Steve Kerr among the side-eye squadron, though. The former 15-year professional sharpshooter and Phoenix Suns general manager, and current TNT basketball analyst, has gone on the record to predict that the Heat will not only fail to three-peat, but will lose their Eastern crown, too, according to Ben Boltch of the Los Angeles Times:
Nobody has won back-to-back-to-back titles since the Lakers in 2000-02 and nobody has been to four consecutive NBA Finals since the Boston Celtics in 1984-87.
"There's a reason these teams don't do it," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. "Emotionally, it's just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don't think Miami will get out of the East this year."
Kerr is picking the Bulls to unseat the Heat.
You'd suspect that Kerr's Bulls pick leans heavily on the expected full-throttle return of Derrick Rose to All-NBA-level play after missing all of the 2012-13 season rehabilitating from a torn left ACL. To be sure, adding an elite point guard (plus savvy playmaking swingman Mike Dunleavy, plucked smartly at the start of free agency) should help the Bulls improve from one of the league's worst offenses (24th of 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession last season) back toward the top of the pops (No. 5 in offensive efficiency in 2011-12, No. 12 in Rose's MVP 2010-11 season).
As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, though, the Bulls also allowed five more points per 100 possessions last season than they did the year before, thanks in part to the departures of a number of second-unit defensive stalwarts (namely Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson), which is a pretty major slide and something to be at least moderately concerned about heading into the season. Full, healthy campaigns from Rose, fellow All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, and key reserves Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich would go a long way toward walking back some of those losses. But given the bigs' past battles with plantar fasciitis, Hinrich's near-constant battle with a wide variety of maladies and the astounding workload head coach Tom Thibodeau heaps on Deng and Noah, it wouldn't necessarily be a shock to see any one of those players limited this season, which could put quite a dent in Chicago's intended ascent.
It would be something of a shock to see James limited. The 28-year-old four-time MVP has missed just 39 of 804 possible regular-season games during his 10-year NBA career, with most of those coming as a result of planned rest rather than injury, and his frame (listed at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, though that might undersell it) often makes him seem like an indestructible war machine. It'd be far less surprising, though, to see the members of his supporting cast wither on the vine.
The hard-driven miles on Wade's legs seem to become a larger topic of conversation and a more significant on-court factor with each passing year, and Erik Spoelstra's expected rotation will continue to rely heavily on longer-in-the-tooth vets Ray Allen (38 years old), Shane Battier (who'll be 35 by Opening Night), Chris Andersen (35) and Udonis Haslem (33, but with 10 years of very physical play on his body) for major minutes. Plus, as Schuhmann notes, the Heat have played 19 more games over the past three seasons than any other team in the NBA, a workload that Kerr thinks is bound to catch up with them.
He's seen it before, as a member of the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen/Dennis Rodman/Toni Kukoc Bulls squads that won three straight titles from 1995-96 through '97-'98. As Kelly Dwyer — my colleague, Our Fearless Leader and as canny a Bulls watcher as we've got on these here Internets — reminds me, the final title squad was running on fumes to start the '97-'98 season after hoisting consecutive O'Brien trophies. They started out 12-9 and bore little resemblance to the world-beaters that followed a record-setting 72-10 campaign with a 69-13 mark en route to back-to-back titles. They'd get it figured out, of course, winning 21 of their next 25 and going four months without losing consecutive games, topping the 60-win mark and depressing Utah Jazz fans all over again. But it was an exhausting, exasperating season, marked by the specter of another M.J. retirement, Pippen angling for a big contract and questions about coach Phil Jackson's future with the franchise; getting through all that to return to the top of the mountain took an exceptional performance headlined by the laser-focused intensity of Jordan, one of the game's all-time killers ... and, without throwing shade, as plenty of people have discussed in plenty of ways in the past, Miami's best player is wired just a bit differently than Chicago's was.
That, of course, doesn't mean that Miami can't become the first team since Larry Bird's Boston Celtics to make four straight NBA Finals trips (1984 through 1987) or the first team since the Shaq-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers to win three straight rings (2000 through 2002). But with all those miles, all that age and all those improving teams — the healthier Bulls, deeper Indiana Pacers and green-tinted Brooklyn Nets in the East, to say nothing of Western powers like the San Antonio Spurs, who came within mere seconds of knocking Miami off back in June — in their way, it's sure to be an incredibly tall order. Watching James and company vie for another piece of history ought to be at least as fascinating as watching them carve out the bits they've already got under their belts.