(SportsNetwork.com) - Two and counting...
The Miami Heat won their second consecutive NBA title in a thrilling, seven- game series over the San Antonio Spurs in June.
The three-time champion Heat should be riding high, and are to some degree.
Miami remains one of the best four or five teams in the league and lost only one significant piece from last season's championship team - veteran guard Mike Miller.
But, the 2013-14 Miami Heat will be defined by the 2014 offseason.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the real and true Big Three, can all opt out of their contracts after this season. It would be catastrophic for all to part South Beach, especially James, the two-time MVP, and four-time winner in the last five years.
James acknowledged he would get asked all season about the looming free agency. Obviously, Miami would love to have him back. The Heat's expected competition for James' services will be his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
James isn't going to talk about it ... at least not after Media Day.
"I don't think it's appropriate to talk about it right now," he said. "Being a leader of this team, I owe it to this organization, to my teammates to not talk about it."
If James can really stay focused on the task of playing basketball and keep reporters at bay, the Heat should be just fine. Three stars in their primes certainly could lead to success.
The question is, has the league, or more specifically, the Eastern Conference caught up to the Heat?
Teams with a tough interior presence can give the Heat problems, as evidenced by the run the Indiana Pacers gave them in last year's East Finals. Roy Hibbert and David West were too much for the Heat to handle at times.
Miami finished dead last in rebounding last season.
To battle their big-man problem, the Heat re-signed Chris "Birdman" Anderson and won the sweepstakes for former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, who hasn't played since November of 2010.
The Heat, who won 27 straight games last season, are not as clear-cut contenders for the title as they once were. The lack of toughness inside, the questions about free agency and the rest of the league catching up to the Heat will hurt.
But if you should have faith in anyone to weather turbulence, it's Miami and James. The King is so clearly the best player in the league and his status as a leader isn't far behind.
To think that this dynasty, or whatever you elect to designate this Heat run as, could come to an end after four seasons is pretty underwhelming. The hatred people spewed the way of James, Wade, Bosh and Pat Riley was pretty intense.
And, in just eight short months, it could all be over.
2012-13 Results: 66-16, 1st in Southeast; NBA Champions.
ADDITIONS: C Greg Oden, F Michael Beasley
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Mario Chalmers SG- Dwyane Wade SF- LeBron James PF- Udonis Haslem C- Chris Bosh
KEY RESERVES: C Joel Anthony, F Shane Battier, G Ray Allen, C Chris Anderson, G Norris Cole, F James Jones
FRONTCOURT: James cruised to another MVP last season and will be the favorite for the award once again.
He averaged 26.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 7.3 apg. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and shot career-highs of 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line.
James' presence alone makes a team a fringe title contender, if not more. And here's the most terrifying thing uttered at any team's Media Day: "I'm a better basketball player that I was last year."
Bosh endured a tough time of it last season. His 16.6 ppg average was the lowest since his rookie season. Same went for his 1.7 apg mark and his 6.8 rpg was the worst of his career.
To think Bosh actually played worse in the playoffs and the Heat won the title is astonishing. His scoring shrunk to 12.1 ppg and he went some postseason games without a single rebound. Not one ball even took a fortuitous bounce his way. Bosh needs a bounceback/rebound year.
It's a Boyz II Men season for Haslem - he's at the "End of the Road."
BACKCOURT: For the fifth straight season, Wade's scoring numbers dipped. Part of that was to be expected when James came to south Florida, but Wade shot a career-best 52 percent from the field. His assists were up and his rebounding jumped, albeit a little bit.
Much like Bosh, Wade's playoff numbers were horrid. He averaged 15.9 ppg and well below his season averages in both assists and rebounds. Wade's knees bothered him, and, at 31, they probably won't get too much better. Wade's game is in decline, but not end of the world type of decline.
Chalmers shot a personal best from beyond the arc and his scoring numbers improved in the playoffs. That has happened every season but one Chalmers has been in the league. Can't ask for much more than that.
BENCH: Battier received two third-place votes for Sixth Man of the Year. His shot got so bad in the postseason, he was DNP-CD in the Finals. Still, Battier returned to the lineup and poured in 18 points in Game 7 against San Antonio.
Allen averaged double figures in his first season as a bench player, yet garnered zero Sixth Man of the Year votes. He was exactly what everyone expected last season and hit the shot that kept the Heat's title hopes alive with his crazy 3-pointer with seconds left in Game 6.
The rest of the second unit, save from Cole and Anderson, two great change-of- pace guys, is average.
If you expect anything from Oden this season, my dad would like to sell you a bridge. Same goes for Beasley, although his contract is low-risk, high-reward if he gives the Heat anything at all.
COACHING: Erik Spoelstra will never get the respect he deserves. People believe anyone can just put on a suit and lead James, Wade and Bosh to a championship.
Spoelstra made some difficult decisions last season, especially during the Finals. He benched Battier and Anderson at different points, trying to rub two sticks together to make something happen.
His players respect him, he's proficient enough with the Xs and Os and is on his way to the Hall of Fame, if you can believe that.
OUTLOOK: The Heat are still the favorites to win the NBA title.
Think of it this way - after an epic regular season, the Heat looked downright shabby at times in the postseason. The Pacers, and the Bulls just before them, exposed their lack of toughness.
Wade and Bosh were awful. Battier and Birdman couldn't crack the rotation. Things looked bleak.
But the Heat still won the title. With all of the adversity and trauma, James was so good, he willed the Heat to a second straight NBA title. He is dominating the NBA at a remarkable clip and there's no reason to think that can't/won't happen again.
Well, there is a reason, this free agency albatross. James, and Wade and Bosh, are such strong professionals and leaders that if one group can go an entire season with that question strangling them at every opposing building, it's this group.
The Heat will have one of the two or three best records in the NBA. They will reach the Eastern Conference Finals, no doubt. They have made the last three Finals and they've got a better-than-average chance of doing it again.
It's just not as mortal a lock as years past.