It's been three years since the Miami Heat
became, in many fans' views, the professional sports team to hate. While some of that rancor has subsided in the minds of basketball observers -- thanks to perhaps a begrudging respect of just how good LeBron James
is -- they remain public enemy No. 1 in the NBA.
To nobody's surprise the Heat enter the 2013-14 season as once again the team to beat, but this time the holes in that theory appear to be getting increasingly larger.
James -- who turns 29 on Dec. 30 -- is in his prime and remains the best basketball player on Earth, and the odds-on favourite to capture another Maurice Podoloff Trophy as the league's MVP. Nobody can match the multiple tools James operates with, and an old adage of basketball is that no matter what, the team with the best player on the floor always has more than a fighting chance to win.
Yet as was demonstrated last year, his supporting cast in Miami lost a step. Logic tells us the declining play of Dwyane Wade
and Chris Bosh
will continue. Logic also tells us that while the addition of the un-retired Greg Oden
is inspirational, it can't be considered as a true upgrade until we've seen him stay healthy for a few months.
So if there's an opening for someone else to take advantage, who is it? Let's start with Miami's own conference, the East.
The Pacers' last two post-seasons have ended at the hands of the Heat. In last year's Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana took Miami to a seventh game by killing them on the boards -- thanks mostly to centre Roy Hibbert. They lost because of their weaknesses: Turnovers and stretches of bad shooting. The addition of forward Luis Scola
will help their second unit offensively and shooting guard Paul George should continue his ascent. Forward Danny Granger, who missed virtually all of last season, is expected to return three weeks into the season. That could be another big shot in the arm.
Derrick Rose is back.
The superstar point guard took way too much flak for protecting himself and not coming back from his devastating ACL injury last season
, but if his health holds up all of that will quickly be forgotten. His new backcourt mate, Jimmy Butler, looked outstanding during stretches of last season in Rose's absence, and now they get to play together. The rest of the solid usual suspects return up front: Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and the power forward combination of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. While Chicago's bench isn't particularly deep, they are hellish to play against thanks to coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive sets.
The two New York City teams aren't quite in Indiana and Chicago's class, at least not the Knickerbockers. While "Gotham" is still a Knicks town, the new-look Nets are the odds-on favourite to take the Atlantic Division title thanks to the importing of the Boston Celtics' championship duo of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce
. The 37-year-old Garnett is still enough of a force defensively to erase the shortcomings of centre Brook Lopez. Add the backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and some great bench depth, and this is a dangerous team. The big question mark is rookie coach Jason Kidd
, a hire questioned for many reasons, not the least of which being he just retired as a player.
The Knicks will likely land up at fifth in the East, possibly setting up a media-intense first-round subway series with their hipster rivals from Brooklyn. The Knicks are more than sound defensively, the addition of Metta World Peace
joining the likes of Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert. Adding Andrea Bargnani
does not help that, but there's a thought among some that the much-maligned Italian could thrive offensively now that he's no longer his team's focal point -- and that he can actually help Carmelo Anthony's production in small-ball sets. This of course, remains to be seen.
Beyond the two New York teams sit what's been referred to as an "Eastern Conference morass." A collection of the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks. These six teams will fight it out for the last three playoff spots. Any of them could make it. Any of them couldn't.
As I mentioned last week
, the Raptors remain a wild card here in the sense that new general manager Masai Ujiri could choose to significantly alter the roster and the team's direction -- possibly in an effort to increase the team's chances of landing lottery balls necessary to draft Canadian superstar-in-the-making Andrew Wiggins.
Having said that, even with Miley Cyrus' wrecking ball it's unlikely Toronto will be that bad.
The Philadelphia 76ers are purposely on the cusp of a truly abhorrent season. The Celtics are in rebuilding mode after trading Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets (with Rajon Rondo likely on the block next), hiring a young coach in Brad Stevens and drafting Canadian Kelly Olynyk (who could be Rookie of the Year). The Orlando Magic and the Charlotte Bobcats are still the Magic and Bobcats, respectively.
And now the Western Conference:
What can you say about the Spurs? They never seem to get old. Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the game (even after last year's Finals error) and they are proven winners. The team will need to increasingly rely on its youth movement in the form of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, but that's not a major concern. It would be nice to see more minutes from Canadian point guard Cory Joseph
-- who played well for Canada at the FIBA Americas tournament, and had moments against the Golden State Warriors in last year's playoffs -- but the Spurs remain deep in the backcourt, assuming Manu Ginobili stays healthy.
Russell Westbrook is still hurt
and the criticism leveled at coach Scott Brooks and the front office for the James Harden trade has its merits. But Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant, and when he's healthy, the addition of Westbrook gives the Thunder two of the top 10 (if not top five) players in the NBA. Add Serge Ibaka and it would be foolish to write them off.
Years ago, when Magic Johnson first retired, I read somewhere that the Clippers were "about to take over the L.A. market." That never happened. Now, with a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant still not recovered from an Achilles injury, Steve Nash not really Steve Nash and the Lakers not the Lakers anymore, this is the Clippers' time. New coach Doc Rivers was a perfect hire
and a major upgrade over Vinny Del Negro.
While the Clippers' nickname of "Lob City" may remain intact, Rivers will install a defensive intensity and half-court offence that should allow Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and company to take a step up.
Memphis remains one of the best defensive squads in the league -- as any team with Marc Gasol inside and Tony Allen outside would be. The changes come with a new coach (Dave Joerger) and a need to improve offensively. Something seems to be missing though.
The Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey won the off-season with the addition of Dwight Howard
, and being paired with the aforementioned Harden is an exciting foundation. Beyond that are questions.
The Warriors could potentially contend for a Finals appearance as well. The addition of Andre Iguodala
may end up being the best great-fit move of the off-season, plugging in a defensive stopper next to Stephen Curry in the backcourt, or filling in up front for Harrison Barnes.
Both teams would seem logical bets to round out the final two playoff spots. Bryant is not close to returning to the Lakers and Nash, who will be 40 in February, is expected to sit out back-to-back games. One wonders if it's the Lakers ultimate plan to join other once-powerful franchises like the Sixers and the Celtics in rebuild mode by trying to land a high pick in next June's deep draft -- topped by Wiggins.
- NBA Finals: Heat over Thunder
I want to say either the Bulls or Pacers will knock off the Heat in the East. I just can't bring myself to own it. With Westbrook out for a while, the Thunder won't finish with the best record in the West, but they should be in full gear come playoff time if they are healthy.
James seems like a lock to win his third straight MVP award, and fifth in six years. However I think Durant is going to be on fire this year, and the absence of Westbrook for a time should prove Durant's worthiness of the true meaning of "most valuable player."
- Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo (Magic)
Oladipo is the consensus selection here, but Canadians Olynyk and Anthony Bennett are getting some love as well, as is Utah Jazz guard Trey Burke.
No, it's not the Toronto Raptors. It's down Lake Erie in Cleveland. No. 1 pick Bennett joins fellow Brampton, Ont., native Tristan Thompson in the Cavaliers frontcourt. Star point guard Kyrie Irving is expected to take another step, and the Cavs are a team on the rise. They even have Andrew Bynum for comic relief if nothing else. All just a three-hour drive from the Canadian border!
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