HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Now that we know what the Miami Heat’s regular-season yellow brick road to a three-peat looks like, it’s time to take a look at the teams capable of derailing those dreams.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the boys are supremely confident in their ability to defend their title for a second straight season, as they should be. But it’s not going to be as easy as just believing and doing. The rest of the contenders around the league have fortified their ranks, retooled their rosters and crafted their own plans to knock the Heat off of their pedestal.
The San Antonio Spurs had their chance in The Finals and couldn’t get it done. I’m not sure they’ll find their way back into that mix if everyone stays healthy in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, Clippers not Lakers. (And before you go throwing stones remember this, for all that the Spurs have accomplished during the Tim Duncan–Gregg Popovich championship era they have never made back-to-back trips to The Finals.) The real threat to the Heat’s three-peat, though, could come from an Eastern Conference challenger, who’d have their shots long before The Finals.
You remember what the Indiana Pacers did to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, right?
A closer look at the biggest threats to the Heat’s Three-Peat dreams …
That seven-game showcase we saw between the Heat and Pacers during the Eastern Conference finals was legitimate. The Pacers attacked the Heat’s one glaring weakness (size and depth inside) and tore at it until the final buzzer of that series. There’s a reason the Heat pursued a big body like Greg Oden in free agency. They need someone to help them fend off the likes of Roy Hibbert and David West, whose physicality in and around the rim was more than the Heat could handle. The star turn from Paul George during that series makes the potential for a third straight Heat-Pacers playoff series even more interesting. Toss in the return of Danny Granger and no team in the league is better positioned to challenge the Heat. The talent, experience, size, motivation and coaching are all in place for the Pacers to strike down the giants of the league. Coach Frank Vogel exited the playoff stage with a strange confidence about him, like he knew something about his team the rest of us didn’t. I see it now.
Oklahoma City Thunder
No offense to the Spurs, who were fantastic in their playoff run last season and 30 seconds away from snatching the Heat’s crown during Game 6 of The Finals, but the Thunder remain the cream of the Western Conference crop. Russell Westbrook‘s knee injury devastated this team and opened the door for the Memphis Grizzlies and Spurs to battle it out for the Western Conference crown. Don’t bet on the Thunder falling down like that again. Kevin Durant won’t allow it. And Westbrook will certainly return with a vengeance. The Thunder know now just how fragile elite status can be. The wrong injury at the wrong time can spell disaster. Westbrook’s injury did have one silver lining for the Thunder, it allowed a youngster like Reggie Jackson to test himself in the spotlight. It also allowed Durant and Thunder coach Scott Brooks to take stock of exactly who would be ready to go when adversity hit. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to know that redeeming themselves for their postseason failure is a must.
Grinding through an entire season without the face of the franchise, Derrick Rose, only reinforced my belief the toughest pound-for-pound team in basketball (coach Tom Thibodeau included) resides in Chicago. Rose pushes the Bulls right back into the league’s true elite as a true threat to the Heat, much like Westbrook does for the Thunder. The Bulls also have a big man presence in Joakim Noah that could give the Heat all sorts of problems in a playoff series. The continued maturation of Jimmy Butler is also a reason to believe that the Bulls are ready to resume their position atop the Eastern Conference regular season standings. But if we’ve learned anything the past three years, regular-season accomplishments are one thing, testing your mettle in the glare of the postseason is an altogether different story. Winning a Game 7 on the road against Brooklyn and then trading punches with the Heat when they were clearly overmatched showed me the Bulls with Rose, Luol Deng and all of their other main components healthy are a very real threat to the Heat.
Los Angeles Clippers
No team in basketball did more to upgrade its position over the course of the Draft and free agency than the Clippers. And it all starts with the acquisition of coach and senior vice president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, who packed his championship bag of tricks with him when he left Boston for Los Angeles. Superstar point guard Chris Paul will orchestrate things and All-Star power forward Blake Griffin will co-headline on what is arguably the deepest and most balanced roster in the league. The Clippers have a surplus of shooters (J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Jamal Crawford and more) who will help space the floor and push the tempo. They’ve also added enough specialists and junkyard dog types to play the relentless defensive style Rivers teams were known for in Boston. The one question about the Clippers that has to be answered early on is whether or not Girffin and DeAndre Jordan are ready to take that next step as a duo on both ends, a la Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in Memphis. If they are, the Clippers will rise up the ranks immediately. If not, Rivers and CP3 will have to drag them along until they are ready. All of the other human resources needed, however, are already in place and ready to go.
I know … you thought this final spot would be reserved for the Spurs. Wrong Texas power. Dwight Howard and James Harden as a 1-2 punch should worry the entire league, not just the Heat. Sure, it’s strictly based on the theory of how these two will play together. And yes, the Los Angeles Lakers tried a similar experiment with Howard and Kobe Bryant last season, only to see it go up in smoke before anyone got the fire going, but this is a new completely new season and scenario. The recent track record for Super Teams is pretty good. For every misfire like the Lakers there are examples (the Celtics and of course the Heat) of these sorts of risky, high-dollar gambles paying off in a major way. The Rockets have such a strong supporting cast and a quality head coach in Kevin McHale that will propel this team up the charts in the Western Conference playoff chase. That said, the onus for the Rockets’ season and whatever title hopes they harbor in their initial season together rest on the shoulders of Howard and Harden. They’re not only going to have to lead this crew on the floor, they have to set the right leadership tone off the floor, particularly in the locker room, and make sure it’s on a championship course. If they get it all together by April 2014, the rest of the league better beware.