NBA BABY! It feels like only last week that I watched Ray ‘Ice Cold’ Allen nail a corner three which crushed the hearts of every San Antonio and Tim Duncan fan. Was it that long ago that I witnessed LeBron’s epic block on Tiago Splitter? Ahh yes, it’s all rushing back. Remember the three-point clinic that was put on by Gary Neal and Danny Green? Have we actually had an entire off-season to ponder on the incredibly maturity displayed by Kawhi Leonard throughout the NBA Finals? (The guy is only 22 years old!)
YEP! We have.
More than previous years, this season seems to have created more excitement and buzz. The league’s awaits to see how the multitude of new coaches perform; how intense rivalries such as the Bulls and the Heat unfold; the impact of new powerhouses’ like Brooklyn; how fresh acquisitions will gel; the continued development of stars we’ve found ourselves infatuated with – Stephan Curry and Paul George; just how hideous some teams will really be; which rookies will have an easier time adjusting to the NBA; is Dwight Howard actually a virus, will he continue to divide locker rooms?; plus my favourite, the return of a extensive amount of superstar caliber players that recently (besides D-Rose) suffered long-term injuries – Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Andrew Bynum, Kevin Love, and of course Kobe Bean Bryant. What a list! Every night these guys produce highlights worthy of being in the NBA’s top 10 plays. The 2012-2013 playoffs were great, but imagine how unreal they could have been if the league wasn’t riddled with injuries!?
But the question on everyone’s mind is, ‘which team has the ability to prevent the Miami three-peat?’
For this article, lets scope out Miami and one team on the East coast who has the potential to dethrone LeBron and the Heat.
The reigning champions no doubt have earned the right to be considered one of the dominant forces in the association – even if Ray Allen’s shot in game six was arguable the most influential bucket in NBA history.
Obviously their major piece is LeBron James. There is really no need to spend a lot of time on James; if you’re unaware of his raw talent, you’ve been living under a rock – a really stupid place to be living while James is in his prime.
Any team LBJ is apart of, automatically becomes a title contender; no joke. Yes his below-par teammates in Cleveland didn’t win him any rings, yet each season the Cavaliers were absolutely in the hunt. LeBron’s been turning heads since he entered the league, but his last two campaigns have truly cemented his legacy in NBA history. These years of the association will be looked back on as the ‘LeBron James era’ – it really sucks for guys like Kevin Durant and upcoming superstars such as Paul George.
LeBron is now only the third player in NBA history to win the regular season MVP and the Finals MVP in multiple campaigns (2012, 2013); Michael Jordan 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998 – Larry Bird 1884, 1986; plus James is the third player to ever be crowned back-to-back regular season and Finals MVP’s (Bill Russell and Michael Jordan).
Last postseason, in 41.7 minutes per game, LBJ averaged 28.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.7 steals and .9 blocks; that’s some serious production. On top of that he shot .491 percent from the floor, .475 from downtown, and .777 percent from the charity strike.
LeBron is the relentless type; unlike Dwight Howard, each offseason he adds something noticeable to his repertoire; last year he impressed us with his low post presents thanks to all his work Hawkeem Olajuwon in 2011. Just how improved is James on the low block? Well in 2012-2013 he led the NBA in both points and FG percentage (72%) under the basket. This was on show throughout the recent playoffs – anytime the Heat anxiously required a bucket, James would set a screen, switch defenders, and put Olajuwon’s teachings to the test. Sure, when the floor’s spread from having guys capable of making shots from beyond the arc in Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and Mike Miller (not anymore), it’s much easier to create one-on-one match up’s down low; but it’s always going to be ridiculously hard to defend against a determined, 250-pound (133.4kg) beast.
While refining his skills in the post, James has also improved from down town considerably. Each season since 2010-2011, LeBron’s 3-point percentage has increased; .330% in 2011, .362% in 2012, to an incredible .406% last year, and after 7 games this campaign he’s 10/21 (.476%). Synergy Sports rating system quotes that last year, James scored an average of 1.119 points per possession. That is crazy – PER POSSESSION!
Achieving the three-peat is stupidly-hard, this is why only a handful of teams have ever done it. Miami have now made three consecutive Finals appearances, only losing one – falling victim to the German Assassin (Dirk Nowitzki) in 2011. Their largest hurdles will be, staying healthy by keeping their minutes down, and how their two new recruits in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley perform.
In three seasons LeBron has played 313 games; 246 regular season games, 47 in the payoffs, and 18 in the Finals. Playoffs and Finals games could be counted as two battles; and each match versus the Bulls maybe even three games due to its brutality. Additionally by having the championships status, you automatically create a target on your back; night in and night out team’s will be gunning for the Heat, player’s step up to the challenge when playing the best sides – it’s all part of being the Champions, its why repeating and three-peating are infrequent occurrences. On top of that, last year alone LeBron tallied up 3,837 mins, Wade 3,173 mins, and Bosh 3,205 mins. This is heavy court-time, so handling the big threes’ minutes will be vital to their success.
Two busted overall number one draft picks in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley became Heat family members during the offseason. Oden’s career has been riddled with injury, while Beasley’s arrogance has hindered his time in the NBA. We have only seen glimpses of Oden’s ability, but if he manages to get through his rehab, he still could have a decade of basketball ahead of him. Year in and year-out, rim protection and rebounding has plagued the Heat, so the seven-foot giant could prove to be a valuable cog in Miami’s front court. For Beasley, the talent is there, it’s just a matter of being in the right environment and keeping him focused – Pat Riley and figures like LeBron and Wade might just be the right mix.
For me, the Pacers are the greatest threat to Miami. Each of the previous two seasons the Pacers have taken the appropriate steps forward; 2012 they lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and just last year they took Miami to a 7 game series in the Eastern Conference finals. Indiana’s starting five – George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert – have all generated a hefty amount of creditability, particularly when guarding the paint.
It really does begin with defense for Indiana. The Pacers are a huge team that plays with a physical and stifling style on the defensive end. They currently sit first in defensive efficiency, only allowing 88.9 points per 100 possessions (according to ESPN); they are the only team below 90 (Golden State is second at 92.9). Rob Hibbert is the reason for this. Hibbert is a seven-foot monster that is currently leads the NBA in blocks at 4.38. It can be fairly simple sometimes: win the battle in the paint, and you’re half way their.
Last year the Pacers bench ranked 29th in the league for scoring and efficiency. Throughout their series against Miami, the Pacers fell apart while the bench was on the floor. Each time the starters returned, half their court time was dedicated to catching up while ironing out mistakes created by the reserves. After losing in the Conference Finals, their two objectives were to load up on a below-par bench and re-sign David West. Larry Bird returned to the Pacers and went to work, inked David West to a new deal, signed Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, and traded for Luis Scola. Plus as a bonus, they soon get back a healthy Danny Granger, who used to be their go-to-guy.
Chris Copeland and Luis Scola (particular Scola) seem to thrive in the Pacer household. In just Copeland’s second season he puts up 8.3 points per game along with 2 rebounds. Scola has averaged 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds throughout his career; Scola’s input alone is substantially greater than any Pacer bench player in the recent years. Combined that with Granger who has averaged 18.1 points and 5.2 rebounds over his eight years, that’s a mountain of production that coach Frank Vogel isn’t accustomed to. These three guys are capable of making and taking tough shots, plus will be more than willing to aid Indiana’s rebound statistics.
The most significant key is the growth and development of Paul George. George’s career has made leaps and bounds in recent times, and this season has been no different. The 23-year old has exploded out of the blocks averaging 24.9 point and 7.8 rebounds per outing, all while shooting .479% from the floor. Paul’s career took an epic turn during the 2012-2013 playoffs. He outplayed the streaking Carmelo Anthony before centering his focus on the Miami Heat. Not only did George produce a myriad of dominant plays on the offensive end (see below), George established himself as an elite defender. No player can completely stop the best player on the planet (LeBron James), but if you’re one-on-one defense is adequate enough to make James earn his points, well, that’s impressive. If we simplify the NBA and judge players based on their pure skills on both side of the ball, George ranks third in the league behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
The Heat begins the season 5-3, while the Pacers (8-0) are off to their greatest start in history. Fatigue will be factor for the Heat in their quest for the prestigious three-peat. What’s working for them? It’s predominately a contract year for Miami’s big three. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all have player options for next year (and the year after). Which means each of them have the ability to become entirely unrestricted free agents this offseason. Typically players seeking to ink new deals for the next NBA campaign are more likely to put in 110% throughout the season prior; the better you perform, the more money you can ask for, obviously. Will Miami’s unselfish, attractive style of basketball remain? Or is this where it stops; do LeBron, Wade and Bosh start fretting about individual desires and security for the future?
For the Pacers it’s about gelling; which appears to be happening. The only significant weakness (their bench) has undergone a serious upgraded. It’s now a matter of identifying each player’s specific role, and allowing those guys the opportunity to thrive in those positions by delegating the appropriate responsibilities. Paul George’s development remains the fundamental key. His 2012-2013- postseason form revealed a leveled-headed maturity we don’t often see in players of such a young age (Kawhi Leonard is another exception). After achieving the 2013 NBA Most Improved Player of the Year award, his game has transformed even more. Paul attacks the bucket with purpose, pulls the trigger without hesitations, and locks down on defense. With Paul now making claims for the 2014 MVP honour, Indiana’s potential is sky-high.