HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — In what has to be the most dependable vote we’ll see this election season, a smattering of anonymous NBA executives and coaches have chosen the Miami Heat as favorites to walk away with the Larry O’Brien trophy at end of the 2012-13 season.
According to the unofficial poll conducted by our main man Sam Amick of SI.com, it’s a three-team race this season between the Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder (with those second two often in flip-flopped order, depending on the ballot). But in the view of the 20 league insiders, it’s strictly a three-team race:
The final tally, with three of the voters submitting only first-place votes: The defending champions in Miami received 16 first-place votes, one second-place vote and two third-place votes; their Finals foe, Oklahoma City, garnered two first-place votes, six second-place votes and nine third-place votes; and the Lakers, who have added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, got two first-place votes, 10 second-place votes and six third-place votes. The Lakers may not be seen as the favorites to win it all, but the idea that they’re the top threat to the Heat is not only a topic of much discussion in the media but also clearly a very real sentiment in NBA circles.
For good measure, my top three — with all of us playing in this pretend world where everyone is fully healthy — would be the Heat, Lakers and Thunder. Reality, of course, may be something altogether different.
Tempting though it was to put the Lakers in the hypothetical top spot, there is a laundry list of factors to keep an eye on as their star-studded season unfolds: the health of Howard, who is still not doing on-court activity after having back surgery in April; the age and mileage of Nash (38 years old, 16 regular seasons and 118 playoff games played) and Bryant (34, 16 regular seasons and 220 playoff games); the question of chemistry and whether Bryant will defer enough to let Nash work his magic while keeping Howard happy enough in his new locale that he wants to re-sign as a free agent next summer; and the installation of Pete Carril‘s famed Princeton offense (former Wizards and Kings coach Eddie Jordan, a Carril protégé, is expected to be hired as an assistant and do the teaching under defensive-minded head coach Mike Brown).
We’re not sure how excited we are about our extra early preseason view of the title contenders coinciding with that of so many league insiders, since we’ve never been particularly fond of the herd mentality that has permeated the front offices of so much of the league.
Then again, what other threesome would you choose right now?
The Spurs and Celtics certainly could make a case for inclusion and perhaps a top five. But beyond that, the Heat, Thunder and Lakers stand out this time of year.
One of the anonymous participants nailed HT’s position on the league’s “Big 3,” if you will, perfectly:
• Eastern Conference executive who voted Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles: “The Lakers will have an adjustment period for sure, but Mike Brown is so good defensively that I can see Dwight being a monster this year. He’ll have to be, because Nash is brilliant but he has taken a step back defensively. It’s just like Miami, which needed a year to adjust to each other. The Lakers will face the same issues. The difference is that Nash and Kobe are a little older and less inclined to be stoppers defensively.
“They’ll be really good and should challenge for the Finals, but OKC should be a very good matchup for them. Kendrick Perkins has proved to be capable of defending Dwight in one-on-one situations and Ibaka can defend Gasol one-on-one, which limits the Lakers’ advantage slightly. I get the sense that people are underestimating the Thunder slightly given the moves that teams around them made, and that plays right into their hands. They’ll use it for motivation.”
Understandably, some folks think August is too early to worry about predicting the team or teams that will be standing in June. It’s often a futile exercise fueled by memories of the season past and colored by moves made (and not made) during a usually furious free-agent summer. It doesn’t take into account all of the nuance of training camp and the actual developing stages of a season. That’s how we sometimes miss the Mavericks winning it all.
But more often than not the true contenders are identifiable this time of year, even if it is just a healthy guess.
Feel free to share yours!