Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Miami Heat are presumptive favorites to win a third consecutive NBA championship.
If they achieve basketball's ultimate goal, they will become the sixth team to "three-peat," and the first since the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers.
And this one will be the hardest of them all for the Heat.
Winning three consecutive titles, in any sport, at any level, is incredibly hard. It's draining to just maintain an intensity for that long, as it is to stay healthy when you're going far into the postseason.
The Heat have played 67 playoff games over the last three postseasons (don't sleep on that Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the first year of the Big Three incarnation). It's 15 games less than an extra full season. Add to that some international competition for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Heat were told to focus on fitness in the offseason.
Miami has shown signs of fatigue in the postseason, especially the last one when Wade and Bosh looked like the old guys in the balcony of "The Muppets Show."
Wade especially is a big key when it comes to health. Watching him hobble around the floor against the San Antonio Spurs in June was tough to watch. He was clearly favoring his leg, but worked hard in the offseason to strengthen his stumps and lose weight.
However, head coach Erik Spoelstra may have to sit Wade more often in the regular season to maximize his usefulness in the postseason.
"Ideally I would like to play every game that we can play, so that's my goal," Wade said. "But when I go into the season and whether it's practice or other things, I'm just going to be smart about it. Our coaches are very open to what I feel I need from my body from day to day."
Fitness is a fantastic goal if no other reason than the Heat will play punishing teams if they are fortunate enough to get to the Finals.
The Indiana Pacers are a football team without pads. The Chicago Bulls tackle better than the Chicago Bears, and with Kevin Garnett now in Brooklyn, look for the Nets to improve tremendously defensively.
And physical teams frustrate the Heat. Bosh is softish and Haslem has seen better days. Chris Anderson will bang with Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Garnett, but if you rely on the Birdman for major minutes, the Heat will de- value his strength, which is change of pace, explosive energy and fouls.
These three teams all improved significantly and can be viewed as legitimate roadblocks to the Heat winning the Eastern Conference, let alone the NBA Championship.
"Our guys are well aware of our competition and how it has improved. Now we have to improve internally," acknowledged Spoelstra.
To further compound things, the Heat did not do much to get better. Do you need to when you have James and won two straight titles? The biggest offseason acquisitions were Greg Oden and Michael Beasley.
Oden had been out of basketball because he has the knees of a 85-year-old former offensive lineman. Beasley is a talented scorer and personal disaster. Beasley seemingly has more marijuana incidents on his sheet than Tommy Chong, and if it wasn't for Pat Riley and the Heat taking a chance on the team's culture absorbing and changing Beasley, he'd probably be out of the league.
Whether the Heat needed to improve is up for debate, but perhaps the largest obstacle facing Miami in its quest for basketball immortality has to do with the future.
James, Wade and Bosh can all opt out their contracts at the end of the season. Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and a slew of others are free agents to be. In fact, only Anderson and Norris Cole are under contract next season (Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony have player options).
The Heat have more impending departures than Laguardia Airport on the day before Thanksgiving.
James has been clear that he has no interest in discussing his status. We, the media elite, have been clear, we don't care about that.
The free agency story line will linger like a pebble in the collective shoe of the Heat. Every minor losing streak will trigger questions. Every road trip will lead to a new batch of reporters wondering if James wants to come to their city.
It will be a nuisance more than anything else, although traditionally players try to do a little too much in an effort to pad personal wealth in contract years.
Spoelstra will have to rely on the professionalism of his unit. It's the most under-appreciated aspect of this group. There are a slew of leaders on this squad, all to varying degrees. Everyone has a role and the common commitment is to defense and the team.
"This team knows why it's put together and it's for an opportunity to play for a championship," Spoelstra said after practice on Monday. "It's not for a guy's individual goals or impact. For the greater good, they're able to manage it the right way."
Management begins Tuesday night. First, the Heat get their rings, which are beautiful symbols of commitment and tackiness. Next, they get the Bulls, a team so physical, the Heat practiced with assistant coach Juwan Howard hitting them with pads during drills.
"It didn't matter who it was," said James, ever the diplomat. "But, we like the fact that it is the Bulls. It makes us stay on our toes."
Maybe all of these potential land mines will hone the focus of the Heat. Adversity could become the rallying cry for a group in need of the slightest extra motivation for a fourth straight trip to the Finals.
No one has ever believed that this group will definitely be distracted by all of this. Just remember how hard it is to win three titles in a row. And now think of how tricky it might be with everything else going on around the Heat.