Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 9/4/12
NEW YORK -- Ask Dwyane Wade about the Miami Heat's dominant championship run this past summer -- one that resulted in the first NBA title of the Big Three era -- and he'll tell you that this one, by the thinnest of margins, was sweeter than his first, in 2006. "I like to say they're both special, but I think the difference is that I've been through so much more as an adult getting to this championship," Wade said Tuesday in an interview with FOXSports.com at a signing for his new book, "A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball." "In the six years since I won my last one, I've dealt with so much in my personal life that this one made me exhale just a little bit longer than I did in 2006." But if the eight-time All-Star guard has learned anything about winning championships, it's that you can never put the most recent one behind you fast enough and that it's always too early to start thinking "dynasty." Wade remembers all too well how hard it can be to repeat -- he experienced it firsthand in 2007 -- and while most of the basketball world is ready to hand the Heat the three, four or five championships they promised just two short years ago, Wade just wants to make his teammates understand that the work is just beginning. "No one knows who's going to win a championship until someone wins that championship," Wade said. "So our job is to defend that crown, and that's what we're going to try to do." And hopefully this year's defense goes smoother than the last one. One year after the Heat won the franchise's first NBA title in 2006, Wade saw his budding empire fall to pieces. Injuries ravaged the Heat during that follow-up season -- ranging from Wade, who missed 31 games, to Shaquille O'Neal, who missed 42, to even coach Pat Riley, who missed 22 games as he recovered from knee and hip surgery. Miami hung a championship banner at AmericanAirlines Arena on Halloween night 2006 and immediately followed it up with an ominous 42-point loss to the Bulls. By the All-Star break, the Heat were 26-26 and had spent just one game above .500. The Heat finished the regular season 44-38 despite their perpetual, crippling short-handedness, and made the playoffs, but the season ended the same way it started: a loss to the Bulls, who swept Miami 4-0 in the first round. The following year the Heat collapse continued, as they won only 15 games. Make no mistake, the 2012-13 incarnation of the Heat is better in nearly every way than the 2006-07 team -- they're younger, bigger, faster and more athletic, and there's no way they're a year from being a lottery team -- but the level of talent Miami possesses also allows for fewer excuses should disappointment befall them. With a scary-good and suddenly likable LeBron James leading the way, the Heat have a bigger target on their backs than perhaps even they realize, and they've got an entire league loading up to take them down. Miami is still the prohibitive favorite to win it all next summer, but not as overwhelmingly as one might think. "I think, more so than any other time, the league from top to bottom is as good as it's ever been," Wade said, acknowledging that back-to-back titles is hardly a given. "Even though you have bigger names on certain teams, that doesn't mean that team is necessarily going to win or that that team is better than other teams." One serious challenger in the East will be the retooled Brooklyn Nets. The Nets, who are still led by point guard Deron Williams, added Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace to the fold this offseason as they make the transition from Newark to Brooklyn. And while many see the Nets' budding rivalry with the cross-river New York Knicks as Brooklyn's biggest challenge this season, Miami is fully aware of the hip, new Eastern Conference beast quickly approaching in their rearview mirror. "They've done an unbelievable job of building around Deron and putting other star players around him, and they're going to be pretty good," Wade said of the Nets. "It's happening like that in the league." Another place of overwhelming changes is Los Angeles, where the Lakers have added two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash and star big man Dwight Howard, the object of Brooklyn's affection for the last year, to play alongside Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant as Bryant continues on the quest for his sixth championship. The moves -- and the pittance L.A. paid to make them happen -- have moved the Lakers ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder as the Western Conference favorite in the minds of many people, including Wade's Heat teammate Chris Bosh, who recently called the Lakers the league's best team "on paper." "They'll be great, but they have to make it work," Wade said with a tone that sounded something like a warning -- perhaps because he's speaking from experience. "Some people figure it out right away, some people take till mid-season to figure it out and some take until the next year if they figure it out. Obviously for them, they need to be successful as they want to be, they're going to have to do it right away." But as Wade could well testify, that's easier said than done. "There are a lot of teams anxious and waiting on the season to start, and they're not necessarily concerned whether (the Lakers) are going to figure it out or not," Wade said. "They're worried about themselves, but we understand that they're going to be a very good team, and we're ready for the challenge." So Miami will enter this season confident -- and why shouldn't it? The Heat have more talent than anyone else, they're hungry to live up to the expectations they placed upon themselves when they teamed up in the first place, and the pressure to get the first title under their belts -- and the monkey off their backs -- is now gone. After last time, though, Wade knows better than to guarantee a repeat. "We know how hard it is to win one championship," Wade said. "So we just want to go out and try to continue to play the game the right way -- the Miami Heat way -- and if we do that, we feel we can be successful." You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.
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