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Depth or Despair?

Even in an improved Eastern Conference, it's safe to say the Miami Heat - even in its current form - should stack up pretty well in pre-game introductions. O'Neal-Chalmers

The Heat certainly has a top-four starting five in the East.

That's if Mario Chalmers (right) makes the kind of progress Rajon Rondo did in Boston between his first and second seasons as a starter.

That's if Dwyane Wade continues to be the typical Dwyane Wade. He doesn't exactly have to put up another career year across the board, but he does have to stay relatively healthy.

That's if Michael Beasley gets starters minutes or, perhaps, even starts at small forward and shows the type of improvement we've only been able to hear about from those offseason workouts.

That's if Udonis Haslem remains two things: Here and his usual rugged, defensive-minded self. 

And that's if Jermaine O'Neal can somehow fight off the injury bug and re-establish himself as one of the top three centers in the East - even as he's paid as the top center in the league.

If you're a Heat fan, you should like your chances with a Chalmers, Wade, Beasley, Haslem and O'Neal starting five. But the question you then ask yourselves essentially represents the biggest dilemma facing the Heat this coming season after you get past the opening act.

Then what?

Where does this team go from here?

The critical issue facing the Heat as training camp looms in a handful of weeks isn't whether or not Chalmers or Beasley will improve on last season's promising rookie campaigns. They should.

It's not wondering if Wade can deal with the distractions and lure of his pending free agency next summer and produce another dose of "anything-my-team-needs-from-me-to-win" antics. He probably will.

And it's not about whether O'Neal will live up to the $23 million he'll make in the final season of his contract. Because he won't. It's unrealistic at this point. But he needs to give the Heat at least as much alongside Wade as Shaq provides LeBron James in Cleveland.

So in essence, this team will only go as far as the rest of the roster can push it. Chalmers, Wade, Beasley, Haslem and O'Neal can keep you pretty much even with Cleveland.

But can you win in moments when you have to rely on Chris Quinn?

James Jones How many points can you book when Wade sits and in comes Daequan Cook?

Can James Jones (left) deliver in spots when he's not left alone?

Would it be a tough night if your next best reserve defensive forward is Dorell Wright?

Heck, what's in store if you need extended minutes from Joel Anthony or Jamaal Magloire?

For all of the debate about Beasley's role - or lack thereof at times - last season, the standard reason for bringing him off the bench was to infuse the second unit with some form of life and spark. If he moves to the starting lineup - it opens up a huge void for the Heat.

This is where a Tinsley might be useful, an Iverson helpful or even a Flip (below right) serviceable. Otherwise, this team - as it currently stands - can only do so much, get so far, with what it has in reserves.

Meanwhile, Orlando can turn to Mickael Pietrus. Atlanta has the option of Jamal Crawford or Marvin Flip Murray Williams. Charlotte can summon Raja Bell, D.J. Augustin or Boris Diaw, depending on who doesn't start. Washington acquired Mike Miller and Randy Foye as reinforcements.

And that's just in the Southeast Division.

Heat president Pat Riley took his longshot at a major pickup in free agency this offseason, and it didn't work out. But a minor move or two will be needed for this team to realistically compete in the East.

Otherwise, Chalmers, Wade, Beasley, Haslem and O'Neal will only spin their wheels this season if the team doesn't make a deal to fortify the bench.

(For live news, notes and updates on the Heat, follow me on Twitter @ twitter.com/wallacesports. To post a question or join our live Heat chat each Thursday from 1-2 p.m., click here.)

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