Friday, June 21, 2013

Will The Heat Threepeat?

Remember, they promised more
Normally, I try to avoid questions like this for at least a few days, because it's just unseemly, as well as the purview of people who don't really enjoy watching games...

But, well, it's interesting, and the question that everyone is going to be asking. So let's have at it.

The reasons for winning again:

1) They will have the clearly best player on the planet, and the gap between him and the others who would contend for that title got wider, not smaller, this year. Kevin Durant got exposed without Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Chris Paul got beaten for much of his head to head matchup by Mike Conley. Dwight Howard just had the worst season of his professional life. Kobe Bryant is ancient and increasingly ineffective. Derrick Rose sat out the year. Stephen Curry had a magical year, but it's not like he's a defensive hammer and/or durable. He just he ate Tim Duncan's lunch, and Carmelo Anthony's MVP vote was a bad joke.

James is healthy, in the prime of his career, on a team that doesn't need him to go full guns in the regular season, and might be the best player in the history of the game. (Heresy? No; Jordan had a better wingman in Scottie Pippen and coach in Phil Jackson, and doesn't have the numbers to compare. Russell had better teammates and played in a far more stat-happy era. Chamberlain wasn't better than Russell. And that's the whole damn list, really. The list is getting shorter every year.) Any year he isn't the MVP is an upset.

2) They have some players that are still on the ascent. Mario Chalmers has his detractors, but he also has two rings, and brings elite level defense. Norris Cole might be better than Chalmers soon. Chris Bosh isn't old, and is adapting to the role of defensive stopper; he's one of the few bigs in the league you can leave on the floor when the game goes small. And James did more on the blocks this year, and from mid-range, then ever before. They might be better next year, even with Allen, Miller and Battier deep into their careers.

3) They are surprisingly deep for a team that should have cap issues from multiple stars. In every game of the Finals, the Heat was able to roll out an elite level three-point shooter, and if that guy didn't have it going, just go to the next gun in the locker. Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Shane Battier all took turns making big shots, and they don't need to run any guy for major minutes. Heck, they could even run Rashard Lewis, James Jones or Cole and Chalmers for those looks. The only place where they suffer, interior defense, is relatively cheap to staff, as Chris Anderson showed. And after Allen's smash and grab ring, they aren't going to get less competitive for quality role players.

4) Erik Spoelstra. He isn't that great. I think his timeout use is weak, that his rotations are relatively static, and that it takes him too long to get past a role player in the wrong series. But he's also got two rings, and a roster that has roared back to win many times when they looked to be in trouble. They play hard for him, and he's gotten enough results so that he can do things like bench Wade for big minutes without having a star level mutiny.

5) Continuity. This has been a relatively stable roster, and that wins in the Association. They know where they are going to be on defense, they share the ball on offense, and they police themselves so that knuckleheads and sad sacks walk the straight and narrow. Despite living and working in the biggest pleasure palace in the NBA schedule.

OK, enough happy talk. 

The case against:

1) The margin for error shrank this year. Indiana nearly had them, and that was without Danny Granger. San Antonio was a board or FT make away from winning in six. They only won two series against teams of actual merit this year, and in both cases, it took them seven games and home court to get it done. Without Anderson, an afterthought bench signing, they don't make it to the Finals. And those stars that lost ground to James last year will likely gain it back in 2013-14.

2) Dwyane Wade really took a step back this year. Whether it was a recurring knee that just needed rest or a deteriorating confidence in his mid-range game, the Heat were frequently a better team without him on the floor, at least on offense. Time off didn't seem to solve the problem, and if he's no longer a top 20 player, the Heat become a lot easier to manage, especially in transition.

3) Wear and tear. They've played four seasons in the last three, what with the three straight Finals trips. Unlike past champions, none of these trips were easy, since they have no "easy" ways to score via a consistent inside scoring presence; they win on defensive effort and speed. At some point, someone's going to have to get hurt and not get better. Even on a a roster that has the single best prescription for health in the NBA -- that is, a constant chance to win a championship -- it's just physics. And from a purely psychobabble level, they didn't play with the same joy this time. Repeating is hard for one more, little said reason: it's not as much fun when you do it again. It becomes more like your duty.

4) Deteriorating public image. You saw this a lot in the Finals, where the Heat didn't get a lot of calls from the refs or trips to the line on contact. Between James and Bosh getting fined for flopping -- and keep in mind that they were the only star level players to get those slips -- and Wade becoming increasingly known for cheap shots and dirty play, they don't get the same benefit of the doubt from the refs that they used to. And their incessant Globetrottery also means that, well, they put their bodies at risk, sometimes against shock troops and second-tier players that might be tempted to make a very big impact. 

Put it this way: James or Wade rises to catch one of those half court lob dunks against the Paces next year. Lance Stephenson is back to defend, with the memory of last spring's playoffs in what passes for his mind, and the knowledge that he's going to have to go play them again next spring. Does he make, well, a poor choice? 

Of course he does. He's Lance Stephenson. 

And every team has one of those guys.

5) The East will be better next year. Well, it could hardly be worse. But Chicago will have Rose back, and can't possibly be as unlucky with health issues for guys like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, with tons of experience for guys like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. The Pacers should be better, as they are young and have Granger coming back. The Nets are hungry, with committed ownership. Boston gets back Rajon Rondo, an emerging Jeff Green, some quality young talent and the knowledge that just doing more of what they were doing isn't going to cut it. New York isn't going to fall off a ledge. Atlanta is run by smart people. Cleveland or Orlando or Washington could make a real step up this year to Dangerous Low Seed, as they all have promising young talent. There are major free agents on the market this year, some of whom will go East. There will be, well, more than 3 to 4 tolerable teams in the East in 2013-14, and the Heat will actually have to make an effort to get past the first and second rounds next year.

So, final analysis right here and now... they have to be the favorite. 

Just like this year. But likely to be less of one. 

And if they keep playing series like the last two, we might not even mind if they keep winning them.

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