“I'm going to take my talents to South Beach.”
With eight words, LeBron James altered the future of the NBA for the next decade. By this time, everybody and his grandmother has an opinion on how James’ offseason “decisions,” and the public reaction (outside of Miami) has been overwhelmingly negative. The simple facts of the matter are that James eschewed a chance to chase his first title in Cleveland, instead dramatically shifting the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. With a team that had been built around James, the Cavaliers will take years to recover, while Miami has instantly become the favorite to capture the 2011 title. Despite all the questions that remain over James’ departure and the other off-season moves around the NBA, the most important question remains this: What will happen on the court next season?
LeBron joins Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to form one of the most powerful Big 3’s in NBA history. The most recent example, in Boston, consisted of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The three combined to win 66 games and the title in their first season together. But James, Wade, and Bosh are all younger than those three, and Wade and James are arguably better right now than any one of Boston’s players was at any point in their careers (depending on how you view the early-2000’s version of Garnett). Not only that, by any measure, Wade and James are two of the league’s top three players right now. This has happened only a handful of times in NBA history: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000’s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the early ‘80s, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in the ‘60s).
It should be noted though, that having two of the NBA’s top three doesn’t always work. Kobe and Shaq won three rings together, but underwent a messy divorce culminating with a loss to an underdog Pistons squad in the 2004 Finals. Baylor retired before he and West could win a ring together, and the Lakers blew Game 7 of the 1969 Finals in LA to an aging Celtics team. That Boston team won just 48 games and finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, but in Bill Russell’s final game, the Celtics were able to pull out a 108-106 victory and defend their NBA title. It is hard to argue Boston was the better team on paper, especially given LA’s Big Three of West, Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. Over forty years later, will the 2010-11 Miami Heat suffer a similar fate to a veteran foe?
After the Big Three, Heat president Pat Riley has done an admirable job filling out the rest of the roster with low-salary guys and role players. It’s not a great supporting cast for a typical NBA contender, but for a team with a top three as strong as Miami’s, it should get the job done. Aside from Miami, it seems that there are three other teams with a legitimate shot to win the title: the Lakers, the Celtics and the Magic (the Thunder are a very interesting team, but have too many questions when matched up against the aforementioned playoff-proven squads). So if you’re one of those three clubs, how do you beat the Heat?
Assuming that Wade and James do most of the ball handling (marginalizing the role of Mario Chalmers as an offensive facilitator), the Heat’s biggest weakness will be down low and around the rim. The Lakers just showed against Boston how rebounding and rim protection wins championships, and indeed, the last four champs have all had an elite front-line player. Gasol improved his toughness and defense after KG dominated him in the ’08 Finals, leading the Lakers to titles in 2009 and 2010. Garnett filled that role for Boston in 2008, and Tim Duncan did the same for San Antonio in 2007. All four were critical to their team’s success in the postseason, and without them, none of those teams would have won titles. Looking back further, the ’06 Heat (Shaq), ’04 Pistons (Ben Wallace), and ‘00s Lakers (Shaq again) all had an intimidating inside presence. The last team to win a title without a dominant big man: the ’98 Bulls.
Chris Bosh is good, but he’s never been dominant, and he is clearly the third-best player on his team. In seven seasons in Toronto, the Raptors finished above .500 once. Even Gasol, who struggled on bad Grizzlies teams for years, won 50 games with Memphis, and from ’03-’04 to ’05-’06, the Grizz averaged 48 wins a year in the tougher Western Conference, making the playoffs each time. In addition, Bosh is not a great defender, and though he’s averaged 9.4 RPG for his career, you could argue that he is the beneficiary of opportunity in Toronto. Last year Andrea Bargnani was the only Raptor taller than 6-10 to average more than 10 minutes per game. I’m not trying to say that Bosh isn’t a good player, but he’s not elite, and in the NBA playoffs, that can make the differ ence. All three of the other contenders have a strong interior presence (Gasol, Dwight Howard, Garnett when healthy) that could provide trouble for Bosh. Joel Anthony averaged 1.4 blocks in 17 minutes per for the Heat last season; as the likely starting center, he will be counted on to be the team’s best inside defender and protect the rim.
However, Anthony can’t do anything on offense (his career scoring average, per 36 minutes, is 5.6 points), and he has struggled to start for crappy Heat teams. Now he is going to be the starting center on an NBA champion? If you’re looking for a place to attack the Heat, the best place to start is down low.
A caveat: James has served as a capable rim-protector and help defender in the past, so teams need to ensure that whoever he is guarding can draw him out to the perimeter and/or make him pay for leaving them open. Paul Pierce and Rashard Lewis should be able to handle this job for their teams; Lewis excelled at this role when the Magic knocked off James’s Cavaliers in the 2009 playoffs.
As mentioned earlier, Wade or, more likely, James, will serve as a de facto point guard, so Chalmers will not have to worry about his offensive role. Though he’s not an awful defender, Wade and James are both very good, so if teams want to succeed on the perimeter, it would have to come against Chalmers. The team best suited to exploit this weakness is the Celtics, as one would assume Wade would guard Allen and Chalmers would be on Rondo. If Rondo can perform as he did during most of the playoffs in 2010, the Celtics could find success against the Heat in that area. Should Wade guard Rondo, Ray Allen would need to consistently hit shots (something he struggled with in the 2010 Finals) for the Celtics to prevail. The Lakers’ point guards (Steve Blake and Derek Fisher) aren’t good enough to carry the offense for long stretches, and Jameer Nelson is not at that level for Orlando, so Boston is the only team that can really use this advantage.
Then there is the issue of the Heat’s coach, Erik Spoelstra. The third-year coach has never faced a situation like this before, and does not have the playoff experience of Stan Van Gundy or Doc Rivers, let alone Phil Jackson. Assuming that Pat Riley doesn’t force him out, Spoelstra will be counted on to manage egos and draw up the right plays in crunch time. Rivers expertly managed the ’08 Celtics, but Spoelstra is not coaching ring-hungry veterans in the twilight of their careers. He is coaching guys in their mid-twenties, all of whom are used to being the man. If he does anything to upset the balance of the team, especially during the playoffs, Spoelstra could become a big problem for Miami.
The best way for any team to play the Heat is to straight-out attack them. Once Miami gets into their bench, they are in trouble. Miami’s subs are either strictly role players (Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller), or past-their-prime veterans in search of a ring (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Jamaal Magloire). They don’t have anyone that can create off the bench, a la Nate Robinson on the Celtics, or even Mickael Pietrus on the Magic. Getting one of the Big Three in foul trouble (especially Wade or James) would force Miami’s bench to step up, and God forbid if Wade or James should be injured for an extended period of time. Playing aggressive, physical basketball, and owning the paint is the best way to approach the 2010-11 Heat, and all three contenders are capable of doing just that.
Instate rival Orlando probably doesn’t have enough to get by the Heat unless Dwight Howard dramatically improves his offensive game. He has the chance to be a force of nature on the offensive end, but has not shown the willingness to improve that aspect of his game (or his free-throw shooting for that matter). Wade and James will completely outplay Lewis and Vince Carter to the point that Orlando’s advantage in depth becomes a non-factor. Should Howard ever decide to spend a summer working on a post game (this summer would have been a good one Dwight!), he could exploit Bosh down low and continue to wreak havoc defensively. As it stands, Miami just has too much firepower for Orlando right now.
Boston has a better chance than the Magic, but it is hard to get past the fact that Miami’s Big Three is younger, faster and better than Boston’s. Rondo can be a difference-maker, but they would need him to be at the absolute top of his game (and he wasn’t in the Finals this year). Essentially, they would need to repeat the 2010 Cleveland playoff series. Defensively, Pierce would have to limit LeBron, Rondo would have to stop Wade, and Garnett would handle Bosh. On the other end, Rondo would have to exploit Chalmers (or find the open man if Wade guards him), and at least one other player would need to be a reliable threat (most likely KG). If the Celtics can do all this, stay out of foul trouble, and win the bench battle, they MIGHT be able to take down the Heat.
The Lakers have the best chance to beat Miami, and could arguably be considered favorites after adding Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff to an already impressive frontline. Their bigs allow them to attack Miami at the rim, especially Pau Gasol, who is certainly a better player than Chris Bosh. This is important: one of Miami’s biggest weaknesses is the Lakers’ biggest strength, and it is hard to ignore how LA’s domination in that area was the difference in a very even 2010 Finals. Artest could probably do a good job on James, and though Wade may have a slight edge over Kobe Bryant, Bryant’s playoff savvy and toughness would make that matchup very even. The Heat don’t have an answer for an effective Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum, though you can’t assume either of those will be up to task for an entire series. Phil Jackson will also have a huge advantage over Spoelstra, having coached 11 NBA champions. The Finals are old hat to him, and he remains one of the game’s best coaches. And then there’s this: Jackson’s first nine titles were all won as part of three-peats. He’s won the past two titles; 2011 would complete three-peat number four.
Even though I’ve spent the whole article arguing how to beat the Heat, I am still reluctant to say that any team can actually do it. LeBron was so close in Cleveland, even though he had no one even close to Bosh or Wade. Wade has already won a ring, and Bosh is one of the best third guys in recent memory. Teams struggle enough to shut down Wade or LeBron on their own; containing both at once will be near-impossible. As of right now, I would give the slight edge to the Heat, with the Lakers close behind, but who knows how the season will play out? One thing is certain: it’s going to be a fantastic season, and I can’t wait to see every NBA team take their crack at Miami come October.