MIAMI — The biggest opponent for the Miami Heat entering this season might not be the veterans from Boston, those up-and-comers from Oklahoma City or a revamped group of Los Angeles Lakers.
Apparently, it's labels.
Talk of a repeat championship, that's not a conversation Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wants any part of, saying his expectation is that this year's journey will prove to be vastly different than last year's — even if it ends up with another title celebration. Being called favorites, the Heat aren't fazed by that one, either. And trying to define players by position, that was largely impossible in Miami even last season.
"We're about one thing," Spoelstra said. "We're going to try to get better. Every day."
Given the makeup of this roster, the Heat would already seem better than the team that won the title last season.
Start at the top: The eight players who were in the primary rotation for Game 5 of the NBA Finals are back, including reigning MVP LeBron James — who enters the season insisting that just one ring won't come close to satisfying him. Dwyane Wade had knee surgery over the summer and says he's as healthy as he's been in years, perhaps since college. Chris Bosh has overcome the abdominal injury that slowed his playoff run.
And if that rotation was good enough to win it all last year, it's no wonder the Heat are a popular pick to win another title this time around.
"Ultimately, we want to defend our title," James said. "But we don't want to short-cut anything. We've never been a team that's been that way. We're going to work each and every day to get better, on the court or film sessions, whatever the case may be."
Or through free agency — again.
Two years after pulling off the enormous series of coups that brought James and Bosh to Miami, Pat Riley did it again this past summer. Without much room to maneuver under the salary cap, Riley lured Ray Allen — the best 3-point shooter in NBA history — away from the rival Celtics.
"Crazy, isn't it?" Wade asked.
Allen, who still excels at moving without the ball and finding space, seems to fit the Heat perfectly. The notion that this team was conventional — a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center on the floor — went out the window long ago, when Spoelstra came up with what's now known as the positionless way of playing. It's not a term the Heat are fond of, but it works for them.
For example, in a recent poll of NBA general managers, James was picked far and away as the league's top small forward. In Miami this season, he could wind up spending most of his time at power forward (where GMs picked him as the league's third-best). Bosh insisted for years that he's a power forward; the Heat won a title with him at center. What the Heat do, in some respects, is play the most sophisticated form of pickup ball: Five guys go on the floor, match up on defense and mesh together on offense, trying to run at every opportunity.
Pace-and-space was the moniker given to it last year. Spreading the floor opened lanes for James and Wade to get to the basket, and created opportunities for shooters like Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller. Now add another pair of 3-point sharpshooters in Allen and Rashard Lewis (another free agent signee) to the mix, and Miami's list of weapons is even longer.
"We have confidence knowing we did it," Battier said. "We knew the intensity and passion and togetherness that it took to get there. It's very difficult to reach that level. You can't just turn it on. But we know how to get there. And I think we're the same knuckleheads."
The league is not the same this year, though.
In the East, Boston — even without Allen — has clearly said that their target is Miami. Out West, the Lakers figure to be much better, with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Oklahoma City was title-caliber last year and has a young core that will likely only keep getting stronger.
"There's no bigger bulls-eye for us than what we dealt with since the arrival of LeBron and Chris in Miami," Wade said. "The biggest challenge for us, first of all, is to stay healthy. That's going to be the biggest challenge. And secondly, to keep that focus all the way through and understand what we're still playing for. The reason we got together to win championships. We got one. We want to continue to get more."
Spoelstra started setting the tone at the season's first practice.
He spent the summer talking to coaches about the challenge of trying to win two straight titles, like close friend Billy Donovan at Florida and of course his boss, Riley. Remember, it's Riley that once obtained copyright on the phrase "three-peat," but Spoelstra doesn't even enjoy the term "repeat."
"I'm not going to use the word," Spoelstra said.
He doesn't have to, and his players seem to understand why. As long as they get another ring, that's all that matters.
"Nothing changes for me," James said. "I've kind of had that bulls-eye for a long time now."