Ready To Dethrone The Champs

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Over the last two seasons the Miami Heat have been the undisputed kings of the NBA. Despite being pushed to the brink in both of their championship seasons—by the Celtics in 2012, and the Pacers and Spurs this time around—the Heat, led by LeBron James, silenced the doubters and were alone atop the hard-court pedestal when all was said and done. 

To win back-to-back championships, as the Heat found out, is incredibly hard. Given the controversial nature of their coming together in 2010, Miami already had a gigantic target on their backs, but winning the crown in 2012 inevitably made them the team that every opposing G.M., coach, and player, wanted to topple. From the Bobcats to the Spurs, the Heat got every team’s best effort in 2012/13, but came out on top nevertheless.

Winning back-to-back titles is tough, but winning three in a row, as the Heat will be attempting next season, is a monumental feat. It’s the kind of feat that’s only been achieved by the truly great teams: Bill Russell’s Celtics, MJ’s Bulls (twice), and the Kobe/Shaq-led Lakers. Even Magic’s Lakers never managed the elusive three-peat. A team that wins three straight championships transcends from a great team to a dynasty.

Achieving that goal is difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s emotionally draining to keep up the intensity level required to be successful in an 82-game season, and to win 16 playoff games. Secondly, father time, and the physical deterioration that comes with his presence, takes its toll on everyone. Dwyane Wade, despite continually pulling out great games when we all think he’s a spent force, looks set to break down sooner than later (a trip to Germany may be required), and the role players who were so important during Miami’s run—the Battiers, Millers, Birdman’s, and Ray Allen’s of the world—are all the wrong side of 30.

But lastly, and most importantly (even if it’s a banal observation) the other teams in the league always get better. They spend countless hours, on and off the court, planning the champ’s demise. Magic’s Lakers were finally dethroned by the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons—a team that took its knocks, and grew through adversity—particularly the adversity of that heartbreaking ’88 Finals loss.

While it isn’t impossible to stay relevant for a long time—the Spurs are testament to that—it is impossible to win it all forever. That being said, the Heat, partly because of LeBron’s genius, and partly because they’re bound to tweak things in the off-season, have as good a chance as any team to win the championship next season. However, there’ll be a number of teams who’ll believe that they have a very good chance to topple them. And here are five of them.

San Antonio Spurs

Some people may believe that the Spurs blew their shot at winning a 5th title when Chris Bosh out-jumped everyone for that rebound in Game 6 (or when Manu and Kawhi Leonard missed those free-throws), but Gregg Popovich’s team has been written off more than once, and come back to make everyone look foolish. It’s also foolish in general to write off any team that comes within one point of winning it all.

Tim Duncan proved that he’s still one of the best power forwards/centres in the NBA and probably still has 2 more high-caliber seasons left in him; while Tony Parker, despite his no-show in Games 6 and 7, might be the best point-guard in the league—and don’t forget, he’s only 31. But possibly the biggest reason for optimism for the fansin San Antoniois the emergence of Kawhi Leonard. At just 21 Leonard is already an elite perimeter defender, a great rebounder for his position, and is emerging as an offensive threat. After missing that crucial free-throw in Game 6, he responded in Game 7 by putting up 19 points and 16 rebounds—as that indicates, not muchappears to phase him. With the decline of Ginobli, Leonard is now the newest member of the Spurs’ Big 3, and a big part of their fortunes going forward.

Personnel-wise the Spurs still have an elite roster, and with Ginobli likely to be re-signed in the off-season for a lot less money, they’ll have some cap flexibility going forward to re-tool their roster and attempt another run at glory.

Oklahoma City Thunder

As with the Spurs, it would be easy to write off the Thunder as a team that had their shot at the Heat and came up short. There’s no doubt that Oklahoma City have looked woefully mismatched against Miami in the last two seasons—losing their last 6 games against the Heat; 4 in the 2012 Finals, and both regular season contests last season.

In all likelihood however, were it not for the season-ending injury to Russell Westbrook (Patrick Beverley isn’t the most popular guy in Oklahoma), OKC would’ve made the NBA Finals again. Would they have lost again? Possibly. But in truth we just don’t know. Maybe Durant, the 2nd best player in the NBA, and Westbrook, a top-10 player himself, play at a ridiculous level and lead their team to victory. Maybe Scott Brook realizes that he can’t play Kendrick Perkins in crunch time and goes small with Ibaka at the 5. The point is, the Thunder were a very good team last season, even without James Harden, and the injury to Westbrook turned them into a team that was a lot different to the team they’ll be in 2013-14.

And there are two bright spots to come out of a brutally disappointing season for the Thunder: 1. Reggie Jackson emerged as an exciting and able deputy to Westbrook at point-guard (the Thunder have athleticism to burn at that position), and 2. Kevin Durant, after a terrible series against Memphis, took A LOT of crap from the media. He’s going to be very mad next season. NBA, beware.

Los Angeles Clippers

There may not have been a more frustrating team last season than the Los Angeles Clippers. At times they looked like one of the very best teams in the league—particularly during their franchise-record winning streak earlier in the year. And at other times they looked like a team hopelessly lost on offense, and without a true identity on the court.

Winning the Pacific Division, and wiping the floor with their big-brother Lakers in the process, should’ve been cause for celebration; but after their first-round playoff loss to the Grizzlies, it wasn’t hard to feellike the team had taken a backwards step. While Blake Griffin has taken his fair share of criticism (some of fair, most of it not) the number one whipping boy was coach Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro, who for the past two seasons has always appeared on the verge of being fired, seemed clueless when things got tough. Against Memphis there was no coherent plan on offensive—or at least no plan other than giving the ball to Chris Paul and hoping that something good happened—but heading into the new season things are bound to be different.

Del Negro was recently let go (or depending on who you ask, fired by Chris Paul) and has (almost) been replaced by Doc Rivers, one of the best coaches in the league. I say almost, because at the time of writing the fine details haven’t quite been worked out. Once everything comes together, however, the Clippers will have a leader who’ll make them infinitely better at the defensive end, and who’ll demand the respect of the players. And assuming that Paul re-signs, the Clippers still have an elite roster, and one that could become even better if they can work out a way to bring Kevin Garnett—a frontcourt presence that they desperately need—out West.

Chicago Bulls

Considering that we just witnessed one of the greatest NBA seasons ever—a season packed with great basketball and storylines galore—it’s a little greedy to wonder about any what-might-have-beens. But if we had to complain about one thing, it should be that in the absence of Derrick Rose, we missed out on what would’ve been a truly titanic tussle between the Heat and Bulls. Don’t forget, the Bulls, without Rose, broke Miami’s 27-game winning streak in what was one of the greatest, and most intense, regular-season games ever. There’s no basketball fan on the planet that isn’t looking forward to more of that next season.

Before the season began, many pundits predicted that the Bulls would struggle without their best player and former MVP, and at times they did (offensively at least). But Chicago put up a more than respectable performance—finishing 5th in the East, winning a first-round series against a favoured Brooklyn team, and taking Game 1 off the champs. Their unexpected success revolved around their suffocating defense, hard-nosed play, and brilliant coaching from Tom Thibodeau. They were just missing that superstar who could create his own shot and draw a double team. Assuming he comes back the player that he was before his injury, Derrick Rose is that missing piece.

Add Rose to a tenacious frontcourt that includes Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng (although trade rumours have started to swirl regarding Deng and the Wizards), and the emerging two-way star that is Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have an elite core that could be a real threat in the East next year. And with speculation rampant about the possible amnesty of Carlos Boozer, and Rip Hamilton coming off the books, the Bulls will have the flexibility to add some much needed outside shooting to an already promising roster.

Indiana Pacers

If we return to a previous analogy and imagine that the Heat are Magic’s Lakers, then Frank Vogel’s Pacers could well be the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons; taking their lumps, but getting bigger and stronger each year, and more of a threat to the champs. Obviously, unlike the Pistons and Lakers of the ‘80s, the Pacers play in the same conference as the Heat, but it’s more than conceivable that if they could dethrone Miami next year, they could win it all.

For the past two seasons Indiana has come up short against Miami. In 2012 they took a 2-1 lead before being absolutely blitzed by the brilliance of LeBron and Wade, and falling in 6. But in the season just gone the Pacers looked like a team who had improved both individually and collectively. They were a last-second LeBron James lay-up (Oh Vogel, why did you take out Hibbert?!) away from taking a 2-0 series lead heading to Indiana, and pushed the Heat all the way before running out of steam in Game 7.

And there’s no reason to believe that the Pacers aren’t simply going to get even better next season.

If you were going to construct a team to beat the Heat it would probably look a lot like the Pacers. They big—like, REALLY big—have players who can protect the rim without fouling, possess plenty of athleticism on the wings, and are very young; meaning their core is going to be around for a long time. Roy Hibbert emerged as possibly the most dominant centre in the league (Chris Bosh isn’t going to cut it against him going forward) and Paul George is a now a legitimate superstar at both ends of the floor. Throw in Lance Stephenson—still a head-case but a very effective perimeter defender—and David West (another Heat-killer) who they absolutely have to re-sign, and the Pacers have a fantastic core moving forward.

What’s more, wing scorer Danny Granger basically missed the entire season and if he can provide the type of scoring punch (preferably off the bench) that they lacked at times last year, the Pacers could become elite at both ends of the floor. The big question mark for Indiana is their bench, and the kind of role players they’re going to bring in this summer. Last season it was woeful—they can’t have the likes of D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, and Sam Young playing big minutes if they want to seriously challenge Miami—but if they can bring some effective role players, preferably players who can hit 3s, they could be the most dangerous challenger in the NBA next season.

 

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