The only competition remaining for LeBron James is NBA history.
Gone are any rumblings about him being able to perform when it matters and any asterisk that could have been applied to the lockout shortened season he won his championship is now a moot point.
He has proven to be King James.
With a championship on the line, James delivered an exceptional performance in Game 7 against San Antonio, converting each of his eight free throw attempts, burying 5-of-10 attempts from 3-point range as he scored 37 points to clinch the series.
San Antonio nearly wrestled the crown away, but James ultimately remained the best in the game.
There are individual goals he has already targeted for this season, such as capturing his first career Defensive Player of the Year award, but each accomplishment now will only add to his legacy.
After 10 seasons in the league, doubting James has proven to be a foolish notion.
Miami is trying to become just the fourth franchise in league history, joining the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls, as the only NBA teams to ever capture three consecutive championships.
James has been selected the Most Valuable Player four times in the past five years, joining Bill Russell as the only other player in league history to amass the award so frequently in a five year span.
The only competition left for James is battling for his place among the legends in the game.
Even the competition is trying to call out Dwyane Wade.
The three-time champion has been slowed down by nagging injuries, as he has missed a combined 30 regular season games over the past two seasons, but Wade has played as efficient as ever.
The 31-year-old guard shot a career-high 52.1 percent from the field, joining Tony Parker as the only guards to shoot better than 50 percent last season.
Wade averaged 21.2 points last year, his lowest since his debut season but still proved he can get it done when it matters most.
In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Wade scored 23 points on 11-of-21 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds, helping Miami secure a 95-88 victory and clinch the third title of his career.
Finding motivation has never really been a problem for Wade during his 10-year career, but silencing the critics, especially among his peers in the NBA, should be enough for him this season.
Smart Move: Miami has the second highest payroll in the league, so a team strapped for cash has to take some risks. The signing of Greg Oden to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum is just what the team needed to remain competitive. Indiana’s physical play, especially in the post almost derailed a championship season, so adding Oden is a calculated move to help the Heat retain its place in the Eastern Conference.
Questionable Move: The Heat exercised its amnesty clause on Mike Miller, a move that saved the team $17 million, but the team made no impact signings other than Oden along with non-guaranteed contract offers to Michael Beasley and Roger Mason. Miami may be hoping for a veteran to be bought out of his contract at mid-season, but there is a strong likelihood the team will be unable to significantly upgrade its roster.
Watch Out For: Ray Allen’s final season. The greatest 3-point shooter of all-time has nothing left to prove, after winning titles in Boston and Miami, Allen enters the final year of his contract. The 38-year-old guard adjusted nicely to his new role, serving as the sixth man for the Heat, but the future Hall-of-Famer is likely to call it quits at the end of the year.
A knee injury just before the start of the season forced John Wall to watch his teammates struggle for 33 games.
The Wizards opened the season with 12 straight losses, essentially knocking the team out of the playoff hunt before Thanksgiving.
In his absence, Washington totaled just five victories, sitting below Charlotte and Orlando, the two worst teams in the league last season, in the standings.
Wall returned and the season was transformed.
The first overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft was emerged as the franchise cornerstone and lifted his team to a 24-25 record during his 49 appearances.
Against Memphis, the league’s stingiest defense that allowed just 89.3 points per game last year, Wall was at his best, pouring in 47 points along with eight assists and seven rebounds during a 107-94 victory.
Washington secured Wall for the long term, signing him to a five-year $80 million contract this summer hoping he can end a five-year playoff drought.
Wall is healthy and the Wizards are committed to him running the team.
Smart Move: One of the quietest moves of the off season was Washington’s signing of forward Al Harrington. The move was low risk, as he signed a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum, but his scoring capabilities may prove to be a major upgrade over the injured Chris Singleton, inconsistent Trevor Ariza, disappointing Jan Vesely or the unproven Otto Porter Jr.
Questionable Move: Emeka Okafor enters this season with a $14 million expiring contract, a valuable trading chip, even as he recovers from a neck injury. The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, February 20th, and passing on Nerlens Noel in the 2013 NBA Draft may come back to haunt the team. Noel is hoping to return by Christmas, which wuold have allowed enough time for the Wizards to assess Okafor’s value while developing a potential franchise center.
Watch Out For: Breakout campaign for Bradley Beal. A sprained ankle not only limited his rookie campaign to just 56 games, he tried to play through it and his normally pure jump shot was off. Once he was fully healthy, and paired with John Wall in the back court, he excelled, averaging 18.2 points while shooting 46 percent from 3-point range over his final 13 games.
General manager Danny Ferry had the difficult task of rebuilding the Hawks without bottoming out.
The first phase of his approach involved sending Joe Johnson to Brooklyn and the team not only scored two more points per game, but the result was exactly the same from Johnson’s final season with the Hawks, a first round exit in the playoffs.
The Hawks started this tacit last season and Horford was able to respond with a career-high 17.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting from the field.
Atlanta has positioned itself to be a factor in next summer’s free agent scramble while remaining a playoff contender this year.
Smart Move: Landing an impact player outside of the lottery has proven to be a challenge for any franchise. Atlanta may have found its future point guard in Dennis Schroeder, the 17th overall selection from Germany. During Summer League play in Las Vegas, the 19-year-old led all participants by averaging 5.6 assists per game and the ability to control an offense.
Questionable Move: The Hawks failed to convince Dwight Howard to return to his home town, a trend that has marred the franchise ever since the inception of free agency. Atlanta has never been able to lure a franchise altering free agent before and clearing cap space, without landing a lottery pick in the deep 2014 NBA Draft, may keep the team stuck in mediocrity.
Watch Out For: A drop in attendance. Phillips Arena, the home of the Hawks, has been dubbed The Highlight Factory. Without Josh Smith soaring through the air to air to compliment the rest of the blue collar type players in Atlanta, the team could fall even lower in attendance after finishing 26th in the league last year.
Another year and another new coach is in place for the Bobcats.
Steve Clifford is the fifth different coach for Charlotte in the past four years, hoping to turn around a team that has posted a 62-168 record in that span.
The team has selected in the draft lottery nine times in its 10 years of existence, but has never chosen a player that has ever averaged 20 points per game at any point in their career.
For all of the horrendous luck the Bobcats have experienced in the draft, never even moving up a single slot in the lottery, ever, there is a potential franchise point guard on the roster.
Kemba Walker flourished during his sophomore campaign, averaging 17.7 points, 5.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and ranked fifth in steal average, swiping away 2.0 per game.
During the off season, he recruited players to the team, helping land a significant free agent and even organized early workout sessions for the team.
If Walker can continue his development, Clifford may have some job security.
Smart Move: The addition of Al Jefferson provides Charlotte the low post impact the team has needed for years. Twice during his nine-year career Jefferson was able to average over 20 points and 10 rebounds and a consistent scoring threat is something the team has desperately lacked. The 28-year-old totaled 37 double-doubles last season, the Bobcats totaled just 34 double-doubles as a team a year ago.
Questionable Move: Jefferson was the first marquee free agent the team has ever landed, but it came at the worst possible time. The 2014 NBA Draft class has several potential franchise players and the addition of Jefferson to the roster will likely not be enough for Charlotte to make a playoff push and prevent them from landing a high lottery selection.
Watch Out For: The end of the Bobcats name. Owner Michael Jordan has already received approval from the league to change the name of the franchise back to the Charlotte Hornets. In 10 seasons, the Bobcats have won just 250 times out of a possible 722 games, the familiarity of the Hornets will be a welcome addition in Charlotte.
Orlando may have stumbled into an All-Star caliber with a smart mid-season acquisition.
Sharp-shooting guard J.J. Redick was in the final year of his contract and the team and didn’t want to be part of Orlando’s rebuilding efforts.
When the Magic shipped Redick to Milwaukee, the team had a 15-39 record and lacked a go-to scorer.
In return, Orlando received seldom used forward Tobias Harris, a talented player that lacked a definitive role in Milwaukee’s rotation.
Harris played all three front court positions and the Magic valued his presence so much, he failed to play 30 minutes just four times after the trade.
Once inserted into Orlando’s lineup, Harris thrived, averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.4 blocks per game during his 27 appearances with the Magic.
The Magic have one of the youngest rosters in the league, with six of the rotation players under the age of 25 but with a rising star in Harris, the team is hoping to contend for the playoffs this year.
Smart Move: No team came out more fortunate in the four-team trade for Dwight Howard than Orlando. Not only did the team steal center Nikola Vucevic, the second highest rebounder in the league last season at 11.9 per game, the team also was able to land a first round pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft. The Magic also have their own selection, so the team could either continue building around young and talented core or try and deal for a superstar player.
Questionable Move: Orlando was oddly quite this off season. With perhaps the most fluid roster in the league, the Magic may need to ship out some of its veterans to clear the way for its next generation of players. Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo are all on the trading block and their presence may serve as a distraction next season.
Watch Out For: The Rookie of the Year. Guard Victor Oladipo was selected with the second overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and is expected to play a major role in the Orlando rotation this year. Orlando struggled mightily on defense last year, finishing 30th in forced turnovers, 25th in defensive efficiency, 24th in opponent scoring and 22nd in opponent field goal percentage. Oladipo has the ability to help drastically improve those numbers.