While one Floridian basketball powerhouse underwent possibly the greatest offseason makeover in the history of the NBA, another Sunshine State elite spent its summer quietly making small tweaks to improve upon a team that won 59 games last summer. Come next spring, we'll see one of them rise to the top of the heap and win a division crown. Who wins the Southeast Division?
For the past three seasons, it's been the Magic who have perennially been a threat to go deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs and beyond, but the Heat have arrived on the scene with designs of dethroning Orlando and starting a dynasty of their own.
The contrast is glaring — in one corner, you've got Orlando. They've relied upon the same nucleus throughout their three-year reign at the top. It's an inside-out game dominated by Dwight Howard in the middle and supported by a strong group of perimeter guys. Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick have been constant, reliable presences in Stan Van Gundy's rotation for a long while. Orlando has won with continuity.
In the other corner are the Heat, who have changed everything.
For seven years, Miami was Dwyane Wade's town. The team won with him (a championship in 2006) and lost with him (67 times in 2007-08). Wade got all the credit when things went well, and all the blame when they went south. Wade was the sparkplug of their offense, the anchor of their defense, their captain on the floor and their leader in the locker room. He was everything.
It may take a while for the 28-year-old superstar to adjust. He's going to have to share the ball and share the reins. LeBron James and Chris Bosh aren't the only ones taking their talents to South Beach — Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Eddie House have all joined the party as well. That's six veterans who will all want their voices to be heard.
The Heat will have wrinkles to iron out from day one. One guy has to emerge as the floor general, one has to be the go-to shot-maker, one's got to be a defensive stopper, and so on and so forth. No one has a role, and everyone has to find one. Nothing will be established until this Heat team takes the floor and figures things out in action.
Until the Heat work out the kinks — which may take a week, maybe a month, maybe three — the Magic will have a clear advantage. If Howard and company are in first place on Christmas, it wouldn't be a surprise. But by season's end, the Heat will rise to the top.
They'll finish first because they're excited to play together. The adrenalin rush of bringing together three of the game's best players will invigorate everyone on the Miami depth chart, from one to 15. The Heat can ride that momentum all season. Sure worked for the Celtics three years ago, didn't it?
They'll finish first because they're impossible to match up with. LeBron, Wade, Bosh — they all demand a double-team. How do you slow down all three? Who do you focus on? And how do you leave Miller or House alone, knowing that either guy can drop a 3 on you at a moment's notice? No one will have the answers to these questions.
The Heat will finish first because regardless of chemistry, or basketball sense, or any other intangible question mark, they're just flat-out more talented than everyone else. The Magic, the Hawks, the Bobcats, the Wizards — they're all promising teams in their own ways, but they can't beat this Heat team once it starts clicking.
The Heat will be Southeast Division champions next spring, but more importantly, they'll be scary for years to come. The rest of the NBA is now on notice.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 21: Who wins the Central Division?
Sept. 23: How many games will the Celtics win this season?