I find myself agreeing with what a lot of the smart NBA prognosticators are saying about the upcoming season: There are going to be many very good teams, perhaps more than normal, and at the end of the day Miami still has to be considered the favorite to win the NBA Finals for the third straight year.
Yet, at the same time, I think many of us may be overemphasizing Miami as the favorite. As Zach Lowe pointed out recently, Miami always has been "on the precipice" of postseason failure the last three seasons. It took an absolutely amazing effort from LeBron James to carry them out of the depths last season, sprinkled in with some luck. Such individual dominance alone is difficult to sustain year after year in the postseason, even for somebody as profoundly great as James. If Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are as relatively ineffective in postseason play again this year, the Heat are really going to be in trouble. Let's briefly view the other main contenders besides Miami:
Oklahoma City: The Thunder have lost Russell Westbrook for the beginning of the season, setting off the panic button in some circles, but such fears are unwarranted. Westbrook should return healthy, and Kevin Durant is so great that any missteps the Thunder have should be minor. They might not have the best record in the West this year, but then again they might. Durant is entering his prime, and the offensive inefficiencies this team has will probably be masked by Durant's transcendence, particularly in the regular season.
The Clippers: Los Angeles retooled around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and it has people like Danny Ainge thinking they will win 65+ games. If Paul and Griffin are completely healthy, that number is not unrealistic, and Paul will probably win MVP. Los Angeles is banking on its two stars to bring the team to a new level this year, and the off-season imports - Doc Rivers, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick etc. - were expressly brought in with this in mind. Paul has always been underrated - this is maybe the best normal sized point guard ever - and 2014 could be the year that it all clicks for him and his team.
San Antonio: The Spurs, at the end of the day, blew it last year. They know this, and given the age of the team, it seems unlikely they can somehow bounce back and win it all this year. But San Antonio's system is superior to anybody else in the league, and this team is too well-coached to be discounted as a serious contender.
Chicago: By next Spring I expect Derrick Rose to be as great as ever, and the Bulls brutally effective style of play should serve them well in the postseason. The question is whether they will be able to generate enough offense around Rose to take down Miami, but this is a team no one will want to play in the postseason.
Houston: The Rockets are harder to predict than these other teams because of the enormous addition of Dwight Howard, and in the very least they should be well above average. If things fall into place - if the defense can be almost as good as the offense - the Rockets will be in a prime position to beat anyone.
Brooklyn: Like the Rockets, the Nets are difficult to project because of the major off-season additions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The potential upside of this team is high - essentially a more offensively talented version of recent Celtics' teams - but injuries and age could easily take that away. I expect Brooklyn to be very solid, but it will be tough for them to make it through four playoff rounds with their health intact.
That is six real challengers to Miami in my opinion. I did not include Memphis or Indiana - two damn good teams - because ultimately I doubt they have the offensive starpower to go all the way. Regardless of the exact number, the league seems full of top-tier squads this season. So Miami will have their hands full if they want to three-peat. It looks to be a competitive year in the NBA.