In a recent NBA.com annual survey, 21 NBA general managers selected the Miami Heat to repeat as NBA champions for this upcoming season.
Well, it looks like 21 GM's are going to be eating crow this coming June when the Los Angeles Lakers hoist up that 17th championship banner. Actually, make that 22 GM's (per voting rules, Miami's GM couldn't vote for his own team).
I find it rather surprising that 70% of NBA GM's picked the Heat to win it all this year, but maybe I shouldn't. The Heat are (I despise the collective singular) definitely going to be in the Finals, so they pretty much have a 50% chance of winning it all. These may be the same GM's who handed Emeka Okafor $72 million over six years, Carlos Boozer $75 million over five years, Andres Biedrins $62 million over six years, and Joe Johnson a whopping $123.7 million over six years, but in this case, they are actually taking the safe bet.
I mean, who can challenge the Heat in the Eastern Conference?
Gritty, but old. They did valiantly push the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals despite Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all playing with limiting injuries, especially Pierce (LeBron's fiercest competitor). The Celtics look to be the Heat's biggest threat, but tack another year onto Garnett and Pierce, and the Celtics will likely come up short once again.
How about the Nets?
Flashy, but unproven. Deron Williams is a stud, Joe Johnson can drop buckets, and Gerald Wallace is a versatile warrior, but the Nets won't be able to defend anyone, especially with a small frontline of Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez. Williams and Johnson should be great defenders considering their size, but up to this point, I haven't seen them dedicate to playing lockdown defense. This team will get up and down and pour in points, but in the playoffs those transition opportunities will dry up, and Williams and Johnson will be asked to outplay James and Wade — highly unlikely.
What about the Pacers?
I actually like the Pacers. They have the necessary size and length to give the Heat problems, but as was the case last postseason, they don't have a proven closer. Danny Granger just isn't "The Man" and unless Roy Hibbert can improve his conditioning and stay on the floor for 40+ minutes, this team won't be dethroning the champs. The Pacers are scrappy and have had some success against the Heat, but to beat the Heat, they will need all five guys on the floor to play excellent basketball, and that sort of reliance is just too much to ask for. Teams need a guy who can get buckets no matter what, and the Pacers don't have that guy.
How about last season's top seed, the Bulls?
Is Derrick Rose healthy? Doubt it. If he plays, he won't be the same guy. He won't be the D-Rose we all know and love until the following season. Without a dominant Rose, the Bulls won't be contending. They will be gritty and play tough defense, but their championship aspirations are going to be on hold until Rose is Rose again.
Then there's the ultimate x-factor, the Knicks?
Carmelo Anthony certainly has all the tools, yet he is entering his 12th NBA season with just one trip to the Conference Finals under his belt, and he is still trailing James and Wade in the battle for best baller from the 2003 NBA draft class. The Knicks have tons of talent with Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert to go along with proven veterans such as Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, and Raymond Felton, but will that spell success? Unless Anthony puts together a LeBronesque or Dirkesque season and absolutely carries the Knicks in every huge spot, this team won't get it done. If Anthony commits to playing defense, this team can be formidable, but we've never seen him do it before, and we likely won't see it happen in the future. Anthony needs to summon his inner Paul Pierce for this team to take down the Heat.
As for a dark horse, how about the Sixers?
Their young core is impressive, but they likely are two years away from being full fledged contenders. Jrue Holiday is a stud running the point, Evan Turner is a solid shooting guard, Thaddeus Young is a versatile wing/post, and Andrew Bynum is the best offensive post player in the NBA. This team has so much potential, but it will all rest upon Bynum. Bynum's never been "The Man" in the NBA, and it will be very interesting to see how he handles the responsibility of grinding it out every single night. Bynum has a penchant for taking games off, but that won't fly in Philadelphia. This team can do some real damage, and looking at their roster, they can really exploit some of the Heat's weaknesses, but do you believe that Bynum is ready to be that dominant center that can destroy the Heat? In my opinion, he's still got some growing up to do, so no.
So yes, the Heat are a safe bet to make the Finals. However, once they get there, I don't see them beating the Lakers, or even the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I 100% believe in the Lakers this season, but if for some reason the Thunder take them down, then I have the Thunder winning it all. I firmly believe that if James had been whistled for a foul on Kevin Durant during the final shot of Game 2, then the Thunder would have won the whole thing. In fact, James fouled Durant, and then he fouled the crashing Russell Westbrook who would have came up with the offensive rebound for a putback if James hadn't grabbed his hand and threw it down. The Thunder then lost the next two games by six points apiece, thus placing them in a 3-1 hole that they just couldn't escape. That series came down to about seven total plays, and unfortunately for the Thunder, the Heat came up with those seven plays.
But enough about the Thunder, the 2012-13 NBA Champions are going to be the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven wise GM's picked the Lakers to be the champs in that poll, and I have a feeling those GM's are running quality franchises like the Celtics and Spurs, rather than the Kings and Bobcats. With the new look Lakers trotting out Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard, I can't help but envision riots in Los Angeles after the Lakers defeat the Heat for the NBA Championship.
The biggest factor in the championship race will be Howard. The Heat have no answer for him, absolutely no one. Chris Bosh and his slight frame certainly won't have a chance against him, and Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem are far too undersized to even dream of containing Howard. Anthony and Haslem top out at 6'9", and Bosh stands 6'11", but he prefers to defend power forwards and he will likely match up with Gasol. Offensively, Howard can punish the Heat at their weakest position, center. The Heat love to play small ball, often sliding James to the four and Bosh to the five, but that won't work against the Lakers with Gasol and Howard on the court. The Heat struggled to defend Roy Hibbert in the 2012 postseason, imagine the struggles they will have with Howard. Furthermore, the Heat will be forced to play their big men extended minutes, something they would prefer not to do.
However, it won't even be Howard's offensive output that makes the difference, it will be his defense. Howard is a beast in the paint, and he can singlehandedly control just about anything within eight feet of the rim. Even more impressive, Howard is mobile enough to contain pick and rolls, so drawing him away from the rim won't automatically lead to a layup as it would with say Gasol or Bynum. With Gasol and Howard manning the middle, you're going to see a lot of jumpers coming from James and Wade. Knowing that the twin towers are patrolling the paint, Bryant, World Peace, and Nash will be able to crowd their opponents and aggressively defend those jumpers. Overall, Howard will serve as James' kryptonite. With James likely unable to attack the rim with such domination, the Heat will suffer measurably.
With guys like Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier, the Heat will depend upon James and Wade to drive and kick in order for those guys to knock down open threes. Against other teams, that formula will destroy opponents. But against the Lakers, Howard can shut that formula down. James and Wade will still drive, but the the wing defenders won't have to crash hard due to Howard, thus allowing them to stay home with the shooters. Lacking open threes, and struggling to finish at the rim over Gasol and Howard, the Heat will struggle to score.
On the other end, with Nash running the point, the Lakers will absolutely thrive offensively. Nash knows how to deliver quality shot attempts, and this year will be no different. Running the side and high pick and roll with Howard and Gasol all game, Nash will feed the bigs a consistent stream of layups and lobs. Even scarier, Bryant will be on the weak side with one on one coverage. With a multitude of options, from the high low, to the corner three, to post ups, to mid range pull ups, the offensive output from the Lakers will be staggering. The Heat will struggle to defend any sort of high low situation, and they will struggle to defend the pick and roll. With Nash serving as a deadeye shooter, all one can do is hope for a miss when he runs the pick and roll with either Howard or Gasol. The only guy on the floor that will be considered a non-threat will be World Peace, but if he can hit anywhere from 35-40% from that open corner three spot, the Lakers will be deadly.
Essentially, the Lakers can force the action upon the Heat. They can play big, and if necessary they can even go small. Because of Howard's impressive mobility, the Lakers can trot out Nash, Meeks/Blake, Bryant, Jamison/Artest, and Howard to counteract a small ball lineup of Chalmers/Cole, Wade, Allen/Battier/Miller, James, Lewis/Haslem/Bosh. The Heat will likely try to force small ball upon the Lakers, but it's unlikely to be effective. The Heat will work to attack Howard and bait him into fouls, but Howard is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year — the man knows how to stay on the floor and play D.
Overall, Dwight Howard signals another downpour of purple and gold confetti in June, and there's nothing the Heat can do about it. With Nash and Bryant running the show offensively, and Gasol and Howard dominating the glass and paint, the Lakers will be the champs. How 21 GM's can think otherwise is beyond belief. Maybe they doubt the ability of the Lakers to gel and play championship ball. I don't. This collection possesses so much talent and basketball IQ, it won't take long for them to get rolling, and once they hit their stride, the Lakers will thrive in all facets of the game.
James is quickly evolving into an assassin, something of a Jules from Pulp Fiction with a freight train of intimidation and execution, but Howard can overpower him with his dominant T-800 frame. Oh, and don't forget about Bryant and his Leonesque cold stone killer capabilities, the ultimate professional.
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