HANG TIME, Texas — Horns will be honking, confetti will be falling, fans will be wildly celebrating the championship season.
No, it’s never too soon to look at where the victory parade might roll in 2014.
Not so fast, Knicks. Last season was your best shot. The Clippers finally landed Doc Rivers, but without the rest of the makeover that Kevin Garnett provides, the Clips are still a Lob City sideshow.
The smarter-than-everybody front office booted the best coach in franchise history, so that takes the Grizzlies a step back. The Warriors are so much fun, but the fragile state of Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut will again be a concern.
Can we really talk about the Lakers with Kobe Bryant rehabbing his Achilles’ and Dwight Howard with his head in the clouds?
So let’s take a peek at the six most likely teams to be dancing next June.
Oh, there will be a summer of hand-wringing and debating about what to do to improve a team that’s won two consecutive titles and played in three straight NBA Finals. All this from people who would probably stand inside the Sistine Chapel and complain about Michelangelo’s brush strokes. Chris Bosh will be left out to dry more than a discarded bikini top on South Beach.
Then the regular season will begin, the Heat will eventually lose a game and the sky will fall again. Lose two in a row and there will be an all-out panic. Dwyane Wade will be sized up for a wheelchair to roll down Collins Avenue with the rest of the senior citizens. Even a 28-game winning streak won’t stop the fretting. Never mind that LeBron James will likely be on his way to a fifth MVP award.
But after all they’ve been through, all they’ve survived, all they’ve proven about themselves over the past two years, do we really doubt that the Heat can raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy again?
San Antonio Spurs
Go ahead, doubt them, disparage them, write them off as being too old and injury-prone. Again.
For all of the stumbling and bumbling around the court done by Manu Ginobili for most of The Finals, there was the overlooked and under-appreciated work done by Kawhi Leonard. At 21, he was a slashing force to the basket and a capable 3-point shooter, as well as a willing rebounder and the man who shouldered the defensive burden through every round of the playoffs. Maybe he is the future face of the franchise.
Yet there is no reason to think that a recommitted and fit Tim Duncan can’t hit the high notes again and Tony Parker can’t lead the offense again. After pushing the Heat to the seven-game limit — and coming within 5.2 seconds in Game 6 of winning the series — a fit Spurs team next spring remains Miami’s toughest challenge in The Finals.
Oklahoma City Thunder
What if Patrick Beverley hadn’t tried to reach out and make that steal as Russell Westbrook was calling timeout? What if the injury didn’t force Westbrook to miss the rest of the playoffs after knee surgery? What if the Thunder got their rematch in The Finals against Miami?
It says here it wouldn’t have happened, because the Spurs were a better, more complete team and the playoffs would have exposed the loss of James Harden as a fatal flaw.
There is no reason to think that Kevin Durant and a healthy Westbrook can’t fill up the baskets next season, win 55-60 games and get OKC the No. 1 seed in the West again. But the Thunder have to do something about that empty abyss in the middle that is Kendrick Perkins’ spot and find that reliable No. 3 offensive option that Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin have not yet become.
The Thunder are the one elite team that has not closed the gap on the Heat. In fact, they’ve probably slid farther behind. But the 1-2 punch of Durant-Westbrook will always give them a chance.
If the Heat undergo a drastic makeover and break up their Big Three, it will likely be in response to the beating they took on the inside from the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Indiana’s first big question: Can the Pacers hang onto free-agent forward David West? While the season-long injury problem of Danny Granger and the explosive improvement of Paul George got most of the attention in Indiana, West has been a stabilizing force for two seasons. He would be sorely missed.
Roy Hibbert must use the experience from this spring to fully understand what it means to show up with the same drive and effort every night and not worry about criticisms or distractions from the outside.
If coach Frank Vogel can harness the mercurial talent of Lance Stephenson and make him a consistent producer, he might get the Nobel Prize for physics — and then he could set his sights on the NBA crown. With a healthy Granger playing all of next season and the experience of reaching the conference finals under their belts, there should be no self-doubt in the Pacers’ locker room.
All the carping about Derrick Rose was so unnecessary and unfair. Did anyone really think that with virtually no time to become accustomed to playing with his teammates that he was going to jump right back into the starting lineup and lead the Bulls past Miami? Now when he takes the floor to start next season, Rose will be fully confident in his surgically-repaired knee and be able to play like his explosive self. Which is, of course, what makes him Derrick Rose.
Do they move Carlos Boozer or Luol Deng? Who do they get to replace Rip Hamilton? There’s plenty of room for tweaking the roster. But with Joakim Noah certain up front and everyone once again getting easy baskets from their set-up man and former MVP, and perennial Coach of the Year candidate Tom Thibodeau preaching defense, the Bulls will nip at Indiana’s heels for No. 2 seed in the East and could take a playoff bite out of the Heat.
Every list needs a longshot. The Rockets are the team that could vault over all of the other contenders if Dwight Howard chooses to part ways with the Lakers.
It could happen. We are talking about Howard, who seems to spend more time up in the air than your average hummingbird. He wants to not only be appreciated, but loved, which is not something that occurred in L.A. last season and is not likely there until after he delivers a championship.
So much spotlight, so much burden, so much pressure to perform with the league’s most high-profile team and a teammate named Kobe Bryant. Truth is, Howard was much better off in his small Orlando pond. He can get the best of both worlds in Houston with a max contract and a sheltered tax haven on the Gulf Coast.
He would also get to play with burgeoning superstar James Harden, the athletic and dynamic Chandler Parsons and play for Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, who wants to coach a traditional low-post center.
If Howard bails on the Lakers, the Rockets are the most logical and comfortable landing spot. They instantly become contenders.